They’re not like those jaunty Irish surnames that kind of jump out and hit you in the face–no way you could see Finnegan or Donovan as anything else. But Scottish surnames, somewhat more subtly, have affected American nomenclature to a surprising degree.
Many that could pass for Irish or English are actually old Scottish clan names, and several have long been accepted as first names in this country–a list that includes Allan, Bruce, Douglas, Leslie, Mitchell, Murray, Stewart, Gordon, Lindsay, and, of course, Scott.
Scottish surnames are divided into two groups: Highland and Lowland. Highlanders didn’t use fixed family names until relatively late–until the 1700’s a man was often designated by his father’s name or would adopt the last name of a laird to curry his favor. It was the Gaelic Highlanders who used the prefix ‘Mac‘ to denote ‘son of”.
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.