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How to Name Your Baby After Your Grandma

How to Name Your Baby After Your Grandma

So you want to name your daughter after your dear grandma… but you can’t quite bring yourself to call her Barbara. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Let us help you re-invent outdated names into sparkly fresh ones that still connect to the original.

Many parents choose children’s names to honor family members. Simply repeating the name can work very well if it’s a classic name that’s never been out of fashion, like Elizabeth, or one that’s been revived — say if your grandma’s name is Emma or Violet.

The problem is, the most popular names of the 1930s and 1940s — when the peak of today’s new great-grandparents were born — are just not cool anymore. Sure, names like Mary and Margaret are strong classics, still given to thousands of girls each year, but new and fresh they are not. Ones that rose and fell rapidly, like Shirley and Linda, are even more date-stamped, and make pretty countercultural choices today.

So where does that leave you if you want to honor someone with a dated name that’s not right for you?

You could use it as a middle name. Or use an alternative honor name that celebrates her in a different way, such as a family surname or a significant symbol.

Or you could get creative with the sounds, origin and meaning of the name you want to honor, to find an alternative. Read on for our top ways to re-spin those names you love, but just don’t want to use.

Updating 1930s and 1940s Girl Names

These were the most popular female names in the USA in the 1930s and 40s combined, by number of births, according to the Social Security data.

For more in this style, check out our lists of 1930s names and 1940s names.

Here, our favorite fresh takes on the most popular names from the grandma era.

1. Mary

The biggest classic of all time still ranks in the Top 150 baby names, but there are so many older Marys it feels pretty dated. For a refresh, try one of the many variations on Mary, such as Mia, Molly, Miriam, or Maren. If you’re looking to honor the Virgin Mary, there are hundreds more Marian names that nod to her in creative ways. An old-school European Catholic practice is giving your child -- boys too -- the first name Mary or Marie or Maria but calling them by their middle name.

2. Barbara

Having been a Top 10 name from the 1920s to the 1950s, Barbara is very much in style limbo now… and there are no other names quite like it. International forms like Basia, Varya and Varvara are rare enough not to feel dated for English speakers, or you could simply honor the first letter with Bea or Bibi. Although it’s not related, Bara is an appealing and unusual option. And a really out-of-the-box alternative is the gender-neutral Ellender, one of the few names that shares the meaning of foreigner or stranger with Barbara.

3. Patricia

Stately Patricia is another midcentury favorite now out of fashion. Part of the the problem is the nicknames: Patty and Tricia just don’t feel like young girls right now. You could try a less-worn nickname like Pia, Pixie or Trixie, or a different name with the same “noble” meaning, like Audrey or Adelaide.

4. Linda

Famous for finally knocking Mary off the top girl name spot, Linda is firmly tied to the 1940s. Tweak it slightly and you get Lina, a rising multicultural choice. Other anagrams and soundalikes include Lydia, Rosalind, and Linnea. Luckily, Linda shares a meaning, pretty or beautiful, with many more contemporary names. Fashionable names that mean beautiful or pretty include Astrid, Arabella, Amara, Cosima, Jolie, Callista, and Belle or Bella.

5. Betty

We think sweet-yet-glamorous Betty is due to make a comeback, as it already has in the UK. But if you’re not convinced, then any version of Elizabeth could honor a Betty. Ones with a modern sound include Eliza, Elsie, Eilish and Etta.

6. Carol

This feminine form of Charles has fallen out of style since the 1930s and 40s, but Charlotte has risen to take her place: the UK's Princess Charlotte's name is undoubtedly a nod to her maternal grandma's name, Carole. Caroline is consistently popular too. Another option is to swap the letters for a rare nature name, Coral.

7. Shirley

Shirley shot up the charts in the 1930s thanks to child star Shirley Temple, one of the earliest celebrity name influencers. It’s not quite ready for a comeback yet, but plenty of other -ley names are popular now, like Kinsley and Oakley. The rare names Shira and Shirin share a sound with Shirley too. And because Shirley means “bright meadow”, you could use another name meaning bright, like Claire, or Meadow itself.

8. Nancy

How you feel about Nancy depends where you live. In the UK, it’s a vintage revival in the Top 100, but in the US it peaked in the 1940s and 50s, so isn’t making a comeback yet. Instead, try another diminutive of Ann, like Annie, Anya or Nina.

9. Dorothy

Good news: Dorothy is coming back! Ranking in the US Top 10 from 1904 to 1939, it already feels vintage, and its homespun charm is calling parents back. It’s rising on both sides of the Atlantic, making the Top 200 baby names in England and Wales, and the Top 600 in the US. If you don’t want to use Dorothy itself, other options are streamlined Thea and Dora, flowing Dorothea and Theodora (which have the same meaning), or ultra-British nickname Dottie.

10. Margaret

If classic Margaret isn’t your style, it’s rich with alternatives. Diminutives Margo and Greta are popular in their own right now, while Pearl and Daisy play on the name’s meaning. Peggy and Maggie are becoming more popular in nickname-loving Britain, and we’d love to see the historic forms Marjorie and Margery make a comeback too. Marguerite and Megan are other alternatives, but not exactly updates.

11. Sandra

Consonant-heavy names like Sandra don’t fare well nowadays, as new parents tend to prefer names with a lot of vowels, glides and liquid sounds, like Ella and Amelia. You could soften it into Alessandra or Cassandra, or remove letters to get Sana or Sara.

12. Joan

I’m just certain Joan is on the brink of a revival. But if you don’t want to be an early adopter, there are plenty more stylish names in the same family, from Jane to international forms like Jana and Gianna. We also love Jo as a spirited nickname for Joan.

13. Judith

Gentle Judith is another name that we can see coming back soon. Meanwhile, Jude is a sleek unisex alternative and a (much) newer short form than Judy, and Judah has been low-key rising for girls, similarly to Noah and Ezra. Or you could use a name with a similar sound, like Edith.

14. Joyce

Joyce is firmly in grandma name territory — my hot take is that it’s ready to go back to the boys — but jolly Joy is more timeless. The related Joss is an elegant but underused option, and Jocelyn is another medieval name that sounds modern again.

15. Sharon

A Top 10 name for most of the 1940s, Sharon paved the way for Karen and Shannon… but none of them are cutting-edge cool anymore. If a similar-sounding name is enough for an honor name, you could use Sasha, Shay, or Maren. The biblical place name Sharon — from which comes the flower name Rose of Sharon — is thought to mean “field” or “plain”, so names with a similar meaning, like Prairie, Savannah, Hadley, and Blair, are also possibilities.

16. Carolyn

Lots of girl names ending in -lyn are popular today, but Carolyn is still too attached to the babies of the 1940s. The alternatives to Carol also work here; other options playing with the sounds include Cara, Callie and Coraline. Carolyn of course can also take the same updates as Carol and turn into the fashionable classic names Caroline or Charlotte.

17. Donna

Donna means “lady”, so you could try a name with the same meaning, like Orla, Freya, or Martha. If you like the sounds of Donna, the way forward could be to make it longer and fancier: how about Domenica, Donata, or even Belladonna?

18. Susan

Susan may be back one day, but meanwhile Susanna and Susannah are surprisingly underused, as is the modern Hebrew version Shoshana.This name family also has some cool nicknames, like Sukie, Zanna and Zula. As it means “lily”, any of the Lily names can also honor a Susan.

19. Helen

A Top 10 name until the 1930s, Helen is still a timeless classic, but if you want to give it a reboot there are international variations and diminutives to suit every style. These include elegant Helena, multicultural Elena and Lena, vintage Nell and Nellie, and lesser-used forms like Aliona, Olena, and Elin.

20. Elizabeth

Elizabeth is the one name here that’s definitely not dated. In fact, it ranks slightly higher today (at Number 16) than it did in the 1940s. But if it’s not your style, alternatives abound. Any of the honor names for Betty, above, would work. Other options include Elspeth, Lisbeth, Elise, and Isabella.

Whether you choose an honor name that’s close to the original or a leap of the imagination, it’s the significance to you, and your daughter, and the honoree if they’re aware of it, that counts. We’d love to hear about your new arrival’s honor name in the Birth Announcements forum.

About the Author

Clare Green

Clare has been writing for Nameberry since 2015, covering everything from the next high-rising names to how to choose a multilingual name, and keeping up-to-date with international baby name rankings. She has a background in linguistics and librarianship, and lives in England with her husband and toddler. You can follow everything she reads about names on Twitter or Scoop.it, or reach her at clare@nameberry.com