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.”

If you like “nature names”, many of these surnames drip with vivid and lovely natural sentiments, including some of the most popular, such as Ashley, Hailey, Riley, Braxton, Clayton and Bentley.

A fair old few of these old place names also contain very old personal names too, including Peyton, Colton and Kinsley.

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.

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16 Responses to “Surname names: In defense of putting last names first”

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Surnames as First Names: English Surnames — H « Nook of Names Says:

September 1st, 2011 at 8:25 am

[…] guest-blog at Nameberry today is on the use of surnames as first names. It follows on from a post I did here at the Nook –  What to Say to a […]

Marginamia Says:

September 1st, 2011 at 9:05 am

“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?”

Yes, it is. So well said. The same is true of nature names and profession names. People get up in arms about Bluebell, but think Lilly is just lovely. They laugh at Weaver, but Hunter is fine. I don’t get it. Every single one of these names had a debut, as you say, and their foundations are just so, so similar; the only separating them is convention! I wonder if we might be simply so much more critical today about names? Maybe the first Roses and Lillies didn’t meet the same scowling faces as today’s Apples and Thistles, not because of any inherent differences in the names-there arent’ any-but because we just have a difference in attitude now? Something tells me you might know!

I think by and large this is a backlash-against-trendiness phenomenon. So many people were going to surnames and place names to do something original, that now rejecting them across the board shows that you’re in the know and ahead of the trends. But as you say, going for a surname with a rich history and meaning isn’t really the same thing as naming a girl a “son” name (which is understandably irksome.) Don’t throw the baby name out with the bathwater?

As with so many other issues, sometimes it’s just a matter of putting on the ole critical thinking cap!

As always, so, so interesting, Nook! Really enjoyed this one!

Nook of Names Says:

September 1st, 2011 at 9:37 am

Thanks! I totally agree about the nature and profession names too — indeed all ‘new’ names (which are often not all that new either. The earliest Apple I’ve encountered, for example, was actually registered in the 1850s).

Certainly, an unusual name would provoke comment in the nineteenth century, but people were rather more polite back then, and, ironically, I think were perhaps more ready to accept an off-beat name.

The responsibility for today’s attitudes I think lie firmly at the door of the media and the ease of access to it. I’ve been musing a lot lately about the impact of internet — access to both data and discussion forums — on names, naming practices and attitudes. It’s something I’d like to investiage more thoroughly when I have a moment to breathe!

anniebee Says:

September 1st, 2011 at 1:35 pm

I think a lot of it has to do with the identity of a name. For instance, Harper’s identity is tied to Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and now the newest Beckham baby so it’s an established first name that is picking up a following. In contrast, Weaver is a surname that means someone who weaves, so people don’t see it as fashionable. Someone has to make the jump for them in order to use it. My opinion is that surnames for the sake of trendiness are lame, but surnames that have meaning to you (even in a literary sense) can be really awesome. I have to wonder how many moms would be naming their kid Harper if they hadn’t heard someone else recently using it as a first name. If they still would, then fair enough. I just don’t want it to become another Brooklyn – women naming their kids after a place they’ve never been. Sorry if that’s harsh and I’m not saying every couple that picks it does that, but I know enough people that have to know it’s not place-related anymore.

Avery is another one. I think some people just choose it because it sounds like Ava smooshed with a trendy “ee” ending. I liked it back when it reminded me of James Avery a jewelry maker, but now it just seems like a fad.

Jennie Says:

September 1st, 2011 at 2:21 pm

If only I had as much faith in current baby-namers as you do. I’m much more willing to accept any baby name if, and only if, there has been careful consideration and research done. I honestly do not believe that most people who name their baby Ashley know that it means “ash tree meadow” and that it has a long history as a surname.

I think too much of baby naming nowadays is based on sound, and I disagree with that. Names are meant to lend meaning. Original (English) surnames were meant to differentiate between the Johns and Marys. Oh, you mean John Ashley (the one who lives by the ash tree meadow) not John Baker (the one who bakes all the bread). Using those names out of context because you like the sound defeats the purpose of the name.

I’m not saying times haven’t changed and that all surnames are forbidden. I am saying that the trendiness of surnames has given people an excuse not to learn the history of a name and why they are using it. I believe surnames that have a connection to that individual are very meaningful, but I will probably never like surnames for surnames’ sake.

Jennie Says:

September 1st, 2011 at 2:23 pm

That said, (and I hope this doesn’t undermine my previous comment), I really appreciate all the information about Roman surnames; that was something I was not aware of, and I like a lot of those names. Thanks!

samjaymc Says:

September 1st, 2011 at 3:02 pm

I find naming a child with a surname totally fine. I mean, one of the most notable characters in litreature is named for his mothers surname..

Fitzwilliam Darcy *swoon*

toomanychoices Says:

September 1st, 2011 at 4:39 pm

I’m a fan of surname type names. I would much rather choose a name because I like the sound and look of it than worry about the meaning. Except for Nameberry’s, who really know’s about the meaning behind a name!?

Great blog.

Nook of Names Says:

September 1st, 2011 at 5:00 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with those that emphasize the importance of thought and research into the choosing of a name. I also agree that choosing a name on sound alone is a bit flat. But exactly the same goes for picking a ‘traditional’ or ‘established’ first name too.

It’s absolutely true that surnames arose as a way of differentiating between lots of people who all had the first same name – but that’s also kind of why first names developed, to differentiate people.

When all is said and done, however much importance we as humans choose to give it, the fact is that stripped back to the bare bones, the primary function of a name – forename or surname – is a label.

As for dismissing surnames because choosing them is trendy – is there any aspect of naming that isn’t a victim of trendiness, to some extent or other? The development of names and naming practices has always been driven by ‘trends’ :). What those trends are have changed over time – but that’s rather the nature of the beast!

Naming is always a result of personal taste and inclination. I would never presume to say that choosing a surname as a first name is something everyone should do – but I do defend it as a valid choice – as valid a choice as any other that might be made – and one that deserves acceptance and respect.

Lola Says:

September 1st, 2011 at 5:06 pm

I like surnames as middle names, generally. I find they add a bit of *something* lovely to the whole name. I used family surnames for all three of my kids: Coe, Nash & Rosamel. Actually, Sebastian is a family name that made the cut for my oldest’s middle, Ambrose, which is also sometimes a surname made it as my second’s middle. And while I’d’ve rathered have a Sebastian, Ambrose & Rosamel, I thought they might have an easier time of it as Leo, Simon & Josephine.

Surnames are perfectly lovely if used in the right context, as family names, rather than “because they sounded good”. And I wish people would say their kids whole name out loud a few times before going with it. I’m so tired of kids sounding like little law firms! : D

WaltzingMoreThanMatilda Says:

September 2nd, 2011 at 1:43 am

Great article! Practically every objection people make against surnames could also be applied to first names – chosen without any idea of meaning or history, just by the sound; not in their family; just choosing it because it is trendy; not suitable for their culture/gender/whatever …

In other words, what exactly IS the difference between a “surname name” and any other type of name??

aunt_ning Says:

October 12th, 2011 at 10:34 am

My last name is Bruce, which is also a common first name…it is Scottish going back to Sir Robert the Bruce, I have cousins with it as their first and middle names and no one see’s a problem with it…

Theodora.Fairfax Says:

November 2nd, 2011 at 10:26 pm

I also am a *selective* lover of surnames. My top pick for boys names will be Livingston, Fairfax, and Dreycot.

jjmonkey Says:

June 1st, 2012 at 5:59 am

Mackenzie is a Very popular name, if u look in a surname book its a english surname

AAlaberkyan Says:

September 27th, 2012 at 11:24 pm

My cousin named her baby girl Lockhart after her mother’s maiden name.

chellemma1 Says:

January 13th, 2013 at 2:33 pm

I found this post really interesting. I really like surname names for boys, I’m a bit more iffy about using them for girls but I do think some are nice. I found it interesting that a lot of people seem to think using surnames as first names is trendy or a new thing. You mentioned about people using surnames names in Ancient Rome but I live in the North of Scotland and here it is quite common and traditional to use surnames as first names (mainly for boys). Names like Finlay, Murray, Cameron, Stuart, Campbell, Fraser, Sinclair, Innes and Munro are all used as surnames and first names. Some are pretty uncommon as first names anywhere else.

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