Known to us by her berryname of Nook of Names, name scholar K. M. Sheard defends surname names, explaining to us why we shouldn’t resist putting last names first.
The use of surnames as first names is one of those topics guaranteed to get connoisseurs of names het up. There are those who despise the use of any and every surname as a first name, and would like to see a blanket ban imposed. And there are those who will happily comb a surname dictionary looking for inspiration, not caring a jot about a name’s history and meaning.
Most of us fall somewhere between the two.
I am an unashamed, but selective (the meaning of a name matters a lot to me) surfer of surname dictionaries – and I’ll tell you why.
Names and naming practices change. Sometimes the change is slow, at other times the names almost trip each other up in the race to the top of the popularity tree. Nonetheless, there has always been change – and probably always will.
And change is good – it keeps things interesting, dynamic and fresh. It gives each generation a chance to define itself. Every name in existence had its moment of genesis, a moment when it was used as a given name for the very first time. Surnames, in my opinion, are as good a source for new first names as any other.
Their use also has considerable historic precedence.
Fact: using surnames as first names goes back all the way to the days of Ancient Rome. Towards the end of the Empire, the old naming traditions broke down, and first names, family names and surnames were bestowed freely in any order. Pretty much anything went.
A great many standard Western first names originated as Roman family names (nomina) and surnames (cognomina). These include Adrian, Anthony, Justin, Lawrence, Paul, Sebastian, Vincent, Camilla, Cecily, Clare, Emilia, Julia, Marcia, and Valeria, to name just a few. It may be almost two thousand years since these names were surnames – but nonetheless, that’s how they started out.
Ah but! I hear the critic say – they passed into first name use long ago and have been long established as first names.
True. And the same apology is often made for surnames of English origin so standard now that their surname origin is forgiven – and forgotten.
But to return to my original point, all names start somewhere. Isn’t it a just a little bit short-sighted to say some surnames are okay for general first name use, just because they’ve been used so long they’re now established?
Probably one of my favorite arguments for using surnames – and not worrying about whether or not your family has any close connection to it – is the fact that surnames are such wonderful historical relics, preserving a whole museum’s worth of historical curiosities from the Middle Ages.
Firstly, there are those surnames which arose from first names anyway, names such as Avery, Cole, Emery, and Wyatt. How can anyone object to the use of a surname that started out as a first name? It does not compute!
Secondly, a great many surnames preserve wonderful old words of the Old English, Norman-French, Norse, Welsh and Gaelic languages which have since vanished. Few people would object to the adoption of words from Latin and Ancient Greek as names – so why can’t we adopt these gems, names such as Bailey, Blake, Chase, and Paige, from the tongues of our direct ancestors, preserved so perfectly in surnames passed down through the generations?
Thirdly, many arose as place names, but those place names themselves are constructed of elements which often have strong meanings that happily transfer to use for people, and which have a long history. One of the commonest elements in Anglo-Saxon girls’ names, for example, was burh “fortress,” which became bury and borough in many place names that also contain it.
Many other common place name elements are very evocative – leah, for instance, behind many of those names ending in -ley, -ly, -lee, -lea, and -leigh, means “wood,” “glade,” “meadow” and “pasture,” while tun carries strong sentiments of home and community, meaning as it does “farmstead,” and “village.”
Lastly, it’s worth bearing in mind that the boundaries between first names and surnames have always been blurred. There are countless names which are both common ‘traditional’ first names and surnames. Many names currently in the US top hundred, such as Owen, Connor, Austin, Evan, Evelyn, Morgan, Jordan, and Aubrey, probably owe their places there as much – if not more – to the fact that they are surnames as well as historic given names.
So, by all means, object to the use of a surname on grounds of its original meaning. I whole-heartedly concur that some are very dull, while others are downright unpleasant or inauspicious. And by all means get miffed when a girl is given a surname with no connection to her family which means “son of…” or niggled at the thought of a boy bearing a name which started out as a feminine noun.
But to dismiss all surnames as inadmissible – except for those borne by immediate family members – would be a shame, as they really do offer a treasure trove of enticing and fresh options.
Ava is one of the biggest recent baby name success stories, jumping from almost the bottom of the Top 1000 twenty years ago to #4 last year–and it could be heading for #1. I’m certainly hearing it everywhere I go, in the street and in the supermarket, and seeing it on popularity lists worldwide. This brings to mind two questions: A) What can you substitute if you like Ava but don’t want such a trendy name? and B) Is Ava the name that will knock Emily out of top place or will it be one of the other leading contenders?
Here are a few ideas if you’re looking for an answer to A:
AVALON. Deriving from the Celtic word for apple, this is a very romantic place name–it was an island paradise in Celtic and Arthurian legend where it was a beautiful island renowned for its luscious apples, the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged. In the present day, it’s the main city on the California island of Catalina.
Starbaby namesake? Daughter of 24 and Heroes actress Rena Sofer.
AVERY. If you’re looking for an alternative with a unisex-surname spin, this is it. The only problem is that Avery is pursuing Ava up the popularity list–and also, if you care about literal meanings, ‘Elf ruler’ doesn’t have much revelance in the modern world.
Starbaby namesake? Daughter of Angie Harmon & Jason Sehorn. NEWS FLASH: Amy Locane just had a daughter she named Avery Hope.
AVIS. A vintage birdlike name which, like cousin Mavis, was once more popular in England; here the dated ‘s’ ending (as in Doris and Phyllis) and the rental-car connection lessened its chances. But now it’s old-time, funky feel gives it some degree of nostalgic charm.
Starbaby namesake? Daughter of Baldwin brother Daniel.
EVA. Several glamorous Evas–Longoria, Mendes, Green–have given Eva a popularity boost. But bear in mind that in several cultures Eva is pronounced Ava, so though it may not look as trendy, the sound’s the same.
Starbaby namesake? Dixie Chick Martie Maguire’s twin daughter.
ADA. Sounding as fusty as Ava did ten years ago, Ada is in line for a possible piggyback revival. Trivia tidbit: Ava Lovelace, daughter of the poet Byron, is considered to have been the very first “computer programmer,” 19th century style.
Starbaby namesake? Not yet.
For some parents, a name’s literal meaning is one of the most significant factors in making their choice, specifically seeking out a name that denotes a quality like strength or calm or beauty or intelligence. But the fact of the matter is that these desirable attributes are attached to only one segment of the name bank. A large proportion of names are based on biblical character references or the arcane workings of the medieval feudal system or geographical features of an early bearer’s locale. And so you find Avery meaning ‘ruler of the elves,’ Carson meaning ‘son of the marsh dwellers,’ Benjamin ‘son of the right hand’ and Brandon ‘broom-covered hill’–none of which has much relevence to a 21st century baby.
And then there are those with out-and-out derogatory meanings, such as Cameron (crooked nose), Campbell (crooked mouth), Portia (pig), Kennedy (misshapen head), Gulliver (glutton), Calvin (bald), Mallory (unlucky), and Miriam (bitter). These extreme examples are the real litmus test as to feelings about whether names are destiny or self-fulfilling prophesies, and also whether you think a child might feel resentful about such a choice (“Did your really think I was gonna have a crooked mouth?”). But judging by the widespread popularity of some of these names, these considerations have been by and large disregarded.
We have always thought that, in making a choice, the contemporary image of a name far outweighs its literal meaning, so that supposedly ‘unlucky’ Mallory trumps ‘gentle strength’ Mildred. In fact, for a long time Pam and I skirted the issue entirely. In our ‘Beyond Jennifer & Jason‘ and ‘Cool Names’ books, which deal with style and trends and naming issues, there were no textbook meanings of names at all. We finally surrendered to the requests of some of our readers when we compiled ‘The Baby Name Bible,’ with its 50,000+ names and their meanings–a gargantuan task, by the way.
So, how important is a name’s literal meaning to you? We’d love to hear your comments on the subject below, or on the message boards.