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Category: surname names




By Catherine Ens
As the old saying goes, “I remember faces, not names.” The opposite has always been true for me. By the age of about seven, I could confidently recite my class list and give the names of almost all the students in my school. As I grew up, there seemed to be only one profession that would allow me to ponder over names to the same extent that I did as a child, and so I grew up to become a teacher. And it gets better than that; I moved from my native Britain to become a teacher in the United States, where I had a whole new world of names to explore, and where I discovered that people often play the naming game in surprisingly different ways.

I love my job. Each September, I joyfully copy my second graders’ appellations onto name tags and into grade books – and then stand back to admire them. As I do so, I am often struck by the differences between parents’ choices here and in my own country. For their first homework assignment, I always ask my students to find out more about why their parents chose their name, and then to share this information with the class. As a name fanatic, I can’t help but devour these “name stories” and amaze at the naming differences on this side of the pond.

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If you look at the list of popular boys’ names—and some girls’ too—you start to feel that almost every conceivable surname has become a first.  Occupational names like Mason and Sawyer, patronymics like Jackson and Addison, Irish surnames Nolan and Quinn, Old Hollywood glamour last names such as Harlow…the list goes on.

Of course the ideal scenario for coming up with a fresher choice would be to discover some surname surprise on your own family true, but that isn’t always possible.

So are there any more original choices in this category of surname baby names still to be discovered?  Of course there are…in all the above modes and beyond.  Here are a few ideas to get you started; some have been lightly used over the years, but they all rate consideration for wider use.

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For the Nameberry 9 newsiest names of this week, Abby Sandel of Appellation Mountain  highlights some unisex baby names, interesting surname names and other novel choices.

By now, you’ve almost certainly heard about Blaer Bjarkardottir.

She’s just won the legal right to use her name.  Fifteen years ago, Blaer’s mom unknowingly gave her daughter a name that does not appear on the official list of 1,853 names permitted for baby girls in Iceland.  The mistake was discovered only after Blaer’s baptism.

A Nobel Prize-winning novelist had used the name for a female character.  Plus, Blaer’s mom knew another woman with the name – it’s where she got the idea in the first place.

It turns out that even in a country with official lists, things can be a little bit fuzzy.

There are no official lists in the U.S., but plenty of us might like to impose them.

Trouble is, even if there were rules at a given moment, they’re always subject to change.  What was true in 1960 – or 1860 – won’t hold in 2013.

This brings us to a great quote from Swistle: “Names, like colors and toys, are given to male/female babies according to fashion, not according to stone tablets.”

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A Girl Named Ellis

unisex 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.

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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:


Averell (an appealing April update)





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