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.
The current popularity lists are full of Irish baby names that are also surname names—Ryan, Riley, Brody, Brady, Brennan, Connor, Keegan, and Quinn, to name just a few—and have been for quite some time. For the most part, they have been two- and occasionally one-syllable names; we’d like to suggest that the next wave will consist of the bouncier, even friendlier and more genial names with three syllables, and here are some of the best candidates.
Branigan—a possible update for Brandon; the name means the descendant of the son of the raven, the latter being a nickname for the first chief of the clan. Spelled Brannigan, it was a 1975 John Wayne movie, and Zapp Brannigan is the antihero of the satirical animated sitcom Futurama
Cullinan—not as familiar as some of the others but has a long and distinguished Irish history—and, for a bit of trivia, the Cullinan diamond was the largest rough diamond ever found (3,000+ carats) when discovered in 1905.
Tomorrow is Mardi Gras, and in New Orleans, that means one thing: a parade featuring Rex, King of Carnival. Mardi Gras parades begin days earlier, and every parade organization – called a krewe – has its royalty. But Rex and his Queen, along with their court of Maids, Dukes, and Pages, occupy a special place in the revels.
Rex traces its roots to 1872, and their royals have been drawn from the most prominent of New Orleans families. The men named Rex are accomplished civic leaders; their consorts are chosen from the season’s debutantes.
Over the years, Rex and his court have worn some fascinating names – a mix of old Southern tradition and French influence. Here are some of my favorites, drawn from decades of Mardi Gras’ reigning royals:
With Labor Day upon us, it seems like the perfect moment to focus on the original pre-barbecue meaning of the holiday and celebrate hard-working occupational names. So we’re looking back to wtoe we wrote on the subject in our book Beyond Ava & Aiden, but here focusing on the less used, fresher sounding examples, and those with less obvious meanings, so no Archer, Shepherd or Baker.
Have you noticed how many of the boys’ names climbing up the ladder end in the letters ‘er’? They sound really new and cool, but in reality a large proportion of them actually originated in medieval England as occupational surnames, when Timothy the Tanner morphed into Timothy Tanner—as if in our day Pete the Programmer became Pete Programmer. And even if a large proportion of these are trades that no longer exist in this Digital Age, and some of their meanings have been lost to time, part of their appeal as a group lies in their throwback reference to basic concepts of honest labor, adding some historical heft to their appeal, and giving them more weight than other fashionable two-syllable names. They offer the parents of boy babies a comfortable middle ground between the sharper-edged single syllable names (Holt, Colt), and the more ornate longer names (Gregory, Jeremy) of the recent past. Here are some of the most usable ones, together with their original, sometimes arcane, meanings.
The er-ending names
- Banner– flag bearer
- Barker –stripper of bark from trees for tanning
- Baxter– a baker, usually female
- Beamer — trumpet player
- Booker — scribe
- Boyer — bow maker, cattle herder
- Brenner — charcoal burner
- Brewster — brewer of beer
- Bridger — builder of bridges
- Carter — cart maker or driver, transporter of goods
- Carver — sculptor
- Chandler — candle maker
- Chaucer — maker of breeches, boots or leg armor
- Collier — charcoal seller, coal miner
- Conner — inspector
- Cooper — wooden barrel maker
- Coster — fruit grower or seller
- Currier — leather finisher
- Cutler — knife maker
- Decker — roofer
- Dexter — dyer
- Draper — woolen cloth maker or seller
- Duffer — peddler
- Farrier– iron worker
- Fletcher — arrow maker
- Forester — gamekeeper, forest warden
- Foster — sheep shearer
- Fowler — hunter of wild birds
- Glover — maker or seller of gloves
- Granger — granary worker
- Harper — harp maker or player
- Hollister — female brothel keeper!!
- Hooper — one who makes or fits hoops for barrels
- Hopper — dancer, acrobat
- Hunter — huntsman
- Jagger — a Yorkshire name meaning peddler or carrier
- Keeler — boatman or barge builder
- Kiefer — barrel maker or overseer of a wine cellar
- Lander — launderer
- Lardner — servant in charge of the larder
- Lorimer — a spur maker
- Mercer — merchant, especially in luxury fabrics
- Miller — grinder of corn
- Nayler — maker of nails
- Parker — gamekeeper in a medieval private park
- Porter — gate keeper, carrier of goods
- Potter — maker or seller of earthenware pottery
- Quiller — scribe
- Ranger — game warden
- Rider/Ryder — cavalryman, horseman, messenger
- Sadler– saddle maker
- Salter — worker in or seller of salter
- Sayer –several meanings: assayer of metal, food taster, woodcutter (as in Sawyer)
- Slater — roofer
- Sumner — court summoner
- Thatcher — roofer
- Tolliver — metal worker (Anglicization of the italian Taliaferro)
- Turner — turner of wood on a lathe
- Webster — weaver, originally female
- Wheeler– wheel maker
Other occupational names
- Baird– minstrel or poet
- Beaman– beekeeper
- Chaplin– clergyman
- Farrar– blacksmith, metalworker
- Fisk– fisherman
- Reeve– bailiff, chief magistrate
- Smith– metal worker, blacksmith
- Steele– a steel worker
- Todd– a fox hunter
- Travis– gate keeper, toll collector
- Ward– watchman, guard
- Wright– carpenter, joiner
The world’s been abuzz lately with the casting of relative unknown Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in the Hollywood version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. While others might be interested in the young actress’s previous films or her fashion sense, we name nerds can think of only one thing: Where’d she get that cool name? And how can I get one like it?
Rooney Mara comes by her Irish-surname-as-first semi-honestly: It’s her real middle name and her mother’s original last name. Born Patricia Rooney Mara, the actress dropped her pedestrian first name in favor of her more exotic middle, which means red-haired. Great-grandfather Art Rooney founded the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Rarely heard as a first name — there were 23 boys born with the name in 2009, and fewer than five girls — the new prominence of Miss Mara can only add power to the growing trend of using Irish last names as firsts. And while Irish surname names have been used for girls as well as boys in recent years, Rooney Mara‘s fame seems certain to further feminize the image of these names.
Other choices with celebrity or pop culture connections include:
- Brady — Miranda‘s son in Sex & The City.
- Carson — Author Carson McCullers.
- Cassidy — Kathie Lee Gifford‘s much-discussed daughter.
- Cullen — Surname of Twilight hero Edward.