Category: surname names
On a recent trip through the South, I met two young sisters charmingly named Mason and Ellis. Surname-names for girls are characteristic of the traditional South, where family last names have long been passed down as firsts to girls as well as boys.
Little girls might well have a conventional first name like Mary or Elizabeth, but their full name is Mary Ellis (say) and they’re known as Ellis. The Mary or the Elizabeth might be mom and/or grandmother’s name; it’s the Ellis part that makes the name distinct.
Of course, surname-names are used for girls in many places beyond the American South these days, though not everyone likes the practice. Boys’ names should be left to the boys, some feel, and girls’ names should be decidedly feminine, and unisex names are all-around unappealing.
If you’ve spent any time on Nameberry recently or if you get our newsletter, you’ve seen the ads for my new novel, The Possibility of You. The story of three women at three key moments of the past century dealing with unplanned pregnancies and questions of motherhood, the book required me to spend a lot of time researching the fashion and music, home decoration and child-rearing practices of 1916. And of course, while I was at it, I couldn’t resist digging up information about names.
One of the most fascinating sources I found was the 1916 Social Register, which listed everybody who was anybody in New York. It took both money and social standing to get your name in the Social Register, and so it was a window into upper class naming practices at the time.
One notable trend in evidence, mostly with male names but occasionally with female ones too, was last names used in first place. Long a practice in moneyed families looking to cement ties between fortunes, these surnames are not the faux Coopers and Parkers that rose up over the past few decades but the genuine article: wealthy Great Aunt Fanny‘s maiden name, for instance, or maternal grandfather’s surname.
Of course, if you’re interested in using a surname as a first for your child, it’s best to use one from your own family, honoring someone you love even if you don’t expect them to leave you a million bucks. But failing that, there’s no reason you can’t steal one of these choices. If you like the whole last names as first style, these sound fresher and more interesting than Taylor or Logan.
Choices from the 1916 Social Register:
It’s Labor Day weekend, and so time once more to turn our attention to the original, pre-barbecue significance of the holiday and celebrate some hard-working occupational names.
We’re focusing on the more uncommon, fresher sounding examples, and those with less obvious meanings, so no Archer, Shepherd or Baker. The er-ending trade names have continued their popularity run, with some individual examples rising (Ryder, Sawyer, Tucker) and others falling (Cooper, Carter, Hunter, Tanner).
Here are some examples of occupational surname names that still seem fresh enough to consider, together with the sometimes surprising trades they originally represented—even if it was so long ago that many don’t have much meaning in today’s world:
The er-ending brigade:
Banner– flag bearer
Barker –stripper of bark from trees for tanning
Baxter– a baker, usually female
Beamer — trumpet player
Booker — scribe
Bouvier—French for herdsman
Boyer — bow maker, cattle herder
Brenner — charcoal burner
Brewster — brewer of beer
Bridger — builder of bridges
Carver — sculptor
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.
I was sitting here last week, making a list of what I was thinking of as Modern Hero Names – you know, like Palin and Winslet – when the news came in about the names Mariah Carey had chosen for her newborn twins. She’d given her daughter the Old Man Name of Monroe, she said, to honor one of her heroines, Marilyn Monroe.
Bingo. I’d been hesitating a bit about whether this was a real trend, but Carey’s choice confirmed it. There’s a new generation of Modern Hero Names that are, typically, surnames and that honor heroes and heroines who may not have been considered baby-worthy before now.
Not only do the namesakes need to be surprising and cool; their names have to be too. So we’re going to disqualify choices like Armani, Chanel, Kennedy, and Lincoln that are feeling a bit too familiar these days.
Modern Hero Names we’ve heard:
Bowie – Are parents honoring rocker David Bowie or do they just like this Western-sounding name? Whichever: Three times as many baby boys received the name in 2010 as 2009 and 19 baby girls were called Bowie too.