Surname names: In defense of putting last names first
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.
A graduate of the University of Cambridge, K. M. Sheard**** is the author of Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names, due to be published in December 2011, and Nook of Names, a blog on all things onomastic.