The next surname family?

Feb 26th 2009

Surnames of the British Isles are classic source of American boys' names -- just ask any Russell, Douglas, or Warren. Today, almost any surname ending in -er or -n is a potential crossover target, for boys and girls alike.

Once a name crosses over in a big way, it paves a road for other names with a similar sound.  Madison, for instance, gave a leg up to Addison, and Mason to Grayson.  Are there any new families of surnames ready to make the same leap?  Maybe one.  I wrote recently about the rise of Finnegan for boys, and in recent months I've encountered more and more girls with names like Madigan, Carrigan and Merrigan.

The -gan names seem to have all the ingredients for popularity.  Their jaunty Irish style makes them perfect siblings for a Kennedy or McKenzie.  (Most -gan names are Anglicizations of Irish names which in turn came from diminutives of first names.  E.g. Finnegan from the Gaelic Ó Fionnagáin, meaning "descendant of Fionnagán," a diminutive of Fionn, which means "pale."  Got it?  No?  No matter.  After all, who ever cares that Campbell comes from the Gaelic for "crooked mouth"?)  The names also offer a rolling rhythm that feels comfortable in this age of Emersons and Donovans. And to top it off, many of them are nickname-ready. Parents of girls in particular flock to 2-for-1 names with a formal, androgyous full version and a cuddly girlish nickname. Addison/Addie, meet Carrigan/Carrie.

Here's my list of likeliest -gan candidates.  As with -son names, the male/female potential is determined largely by the roots, so Brannigan is a likelier choice for boys than Nelligan.



By Amy3
February 27, 2009 1:43 PM

It's not the same -gan sound, but it's close--I know a little girl (almost 3) who's named Callaghan (her mom's mn). Afaik they call her by the full name, but Callie is an obvious, and likable, nn.

February 26, 2009 1:11 PM

i love last names for first names, but i'm not sold on this -gan ending yet, it just keeps reminding me of the song i used to sing again about poor old Michael Finnegan (he had whiskers on his Chinnegan)

another possibility could be Hannigan/Hannie

By Opal (not verified)
February 26, 2009 1:11 PM

Not sure I like the nickname potential for Brannigan (Bran - as in high in fiber?) and Flannigan (Flan - another food?).

At my son's playgroup there's a 6 y/o boy named Cadigan or Caddigan (no idea on the spelling; I've only heard the name). Cadigan's big sister is Payton or Peyton (again, no idea on the spelling).

By Opal (not verified)
February 26, 2009 1:12 PM

Correction - Cadigan is 6 MONTHS old; not years.

By Phoebe (not verified)
February 26, 2009 1:15 PM

All I can think of when I hear Brannigan is the dimwitted space captain, Zap Brannigan, from Futurama....which just makes me giggle.

February 26, 2009 1:45 PM

FWIW, Cadogan is actually an (anglicized) Welsh given name. There's a Sir Cadogan in the Harry Potter books, an aggressively gallant knight in a picture frame.

By jennifer h (not verified)
February 26, 2009 2:01 PM

Anyone remember the movie Willow? Madmartigan was Val Kilmer's character.

Coming from someone whose boy name list was nearly exclusively surnames, I do like surnames but I can't quite get behind the ending -gan. I like Finnegan but that's about it.

By IrishPoliticsPhD (not verified)
February 26, 2009 2:10 PM

Re: post #3:

As per "root" name - Bran is the Irish word for Raven, while Flan/Flann already has a notable namesake in Irish author Flann O'Brien. Just because a name has tenuous connotations in American culture doesn't necessarily rule it out. If I had a nickel for every little boy I've met named Jack Daniel...

Added to the list: the Logan cognates:
Hogan, Brogan, and Rogan already gaining ground for boys.

Teagan has already become the new Meagan for girls.

February 26, 2009 2:19 PM

I think Laura is definitely on to something with the potential -gan Lastnames First trend. Am I the only one who sees the -gan ending as still a tad bit dated to the 90s? I think of Logan, Meagan/Megan, Reagan/Regan - which all seem a bit stale.

By Guest (not verified)
February 26, 2009 2:20 PM

What about Reagan?
My cousin has a 3 year old son named Reagan.

February 26, 2009 2:36 PM

Nicole - I don't think you're the only one who sees it as done, which is why the new crop will be 3 plus syllables. I think the longer names will seem much fresher.

By JillH (not verified)
February 26, 2009 3:09 PM

I didn't immediately think of that, but I see your point. I think SarahC is right that it's really the -igan ending rather then the -gan ending that is fresh.

February 26, 2009 3:13 PM

I think you are spot on, as usual, Laura, with the next trend. I could imagine the -han names might catch on too, as Amy3 says- e.g. Monaghan, Hanrahan... though maybe not Hoolihan!

FYI, Cadogan has a different pronunciation in Britain from the other names mentioned- it's traditionally pronounced Ca-DUGG-an. you think Cardigan will catch on too?

By Jessi Ronan's Mum (not verified)
February 26, 2009 3:21 PM

I really like Surnames as first names,that being said I can't say I've ever consider them for my own children. I really like the sound of Kerrigan though, Kerri is a cute nickname.

By Jessi Ronan's Mum (not verified)
February 26, 2009 3:32 PM

Ok, I have a quick question,I may have asked this before but I need some opinions. This sort of goes back to last weeks post about meanings and spellings.
Girls name: Caoimhe if your not from the UK, you don't know how to say it right? But am I losing its "authinticity"(sp)by spelling it Keeva?I'm in Canada by the way,My hubby is Canadian and can't get around my spelling.

By Aybee (not verified)
February 26, 2009 3:51 PM

I can't speak to whether or not you would lose authenticity-- but count me as one would would have no clue how to pronounce Caoimhe... and my guess would be nothing close to Keeva.

That said, I didn't know how to pronounce Siobhan the first time I met one. I think though if you do use the authentic spelling you/the child should be prepared to spell/pronounce many times. I don't neccesarily think this is a bad thing-- it could be very educational on both sides.

By Guest (not verified)
February 26, 2009 4:18 PM

I think part of the allure of Caoimhe is the spelling. I would have no idea how to pronounce it. I agree with Aybee, although I think it might get extremely annoying for both you and your child to have to tell every single person they ever come to contact with how to pronounce their name, assuming they will not be living in the UK.

By Amy3
February 26, 2009 4:47 PM

Jessi Ronan's Mum -- I think Caoimhe is beautiful visually, but like others said, I wouldn't know how to pronounce it. (I also didn't know how to pronounce Sinead and Siobhan either, but now I do.) That said, as long as you're prepared to correct people and teach your daughter how to correct them, then you're choosing it with open eyes. I do think something ineffable is lost by changing it to Keeva.

By Livingston 41 (not verified)
February 26, 2009 5:08 PM

Kerrigan reminds me of Ceridwen (Keridwen is a standard variant, same pronunciation): it's a Welsh girls' name with the same rhythm. In myth, Ceridwen is the mother of Taliesin, and therefore associated with poetry.

By AppMtn (not verified)
February 26, 2009 5:12 PM

I've loved Madigan ever since I read the story of Elvira Madigan, the tragic Danish tightrope walker. But with all the Madeleines and Madisons, I'm not sure that the -gan ending is enough to make her sound fresh.

Some of these, though, are clearly headed for a playground near us.

And Caoimhe? I'd keep the spelling. Here's the thing - Keeva could be Kiva or Cevah or Kyvah, too. No, I wouldn't quite know how to say Caoimhe without looking it up. But I wouldn't know how to spell Keeva without asking, either.

If you're going to have to spell the name, why not stick with the authentic version? It has far more style than Keeva, which could just as easily be a random assortment of sounds you liked. (And it *is* a nice sound, but it is clearly more than that, too.)

February 26, 2009 5:15 PM

re: Bran as viable nn: It is also similar to Bram and Brant and is also in Brandon, where it might not be used as an "official" nn (I mean like a nn a student might write on his paper) but I'm sure some Brandons are already called Bran on occasion.

Jessi Ronan's Mum: What exactly is your concern with "authenticity?" That others will look down on your choice? That the name seems less classic or classy? Less substantial?

By Eo (not verified)
February 26, 2009 5:23 PM

The "-gan" names don't appeal to me for some reason, and I have an intuition that they will become dated as "Shannon", "Brian", and "Kevin", (are they not Anglicizations of more unusually spelled Irish names?) have, unfortunately. Not sure why though-- will have to think about it...

On the other hand, something like "Caoimhe", an apparently authentic spelling, strikes me as something that would defy time, and is beautiful to boot. I would never have known it is pronounced "Keeva", but once learned, I think it would stick.

The "Siobhan" example is an excellent one-- now many informed people know how to say it over here, but a generation ago, probably very few did. We can learn!

Jessi Ronan's Mum, as one who grew up in Canada, I know many Canadians, Irish-centric and otherwise, would be charmed by Caoimhe, unfamiliar spelling and all. Among many, it would be a badge of honor to master it!

I rather hope you don't go for the adulterated spelling...

By Amanda (not verified)
February 26, 2009 5:42 PM

My sister-in-law heard the name Kherrington on tv, and plans on using it for a girl. Has anyone heard this name?

By Eo (not verified)
February 26, 2009 5:50 PM

I just noticed in Wikipedia that Caoimhe can even be pronounced "Kweeva" as well as "Keeva". Neat! I like that tongue-twisting "kwee"...

February 26, 2009 5:51 PM

Anyone else immediately think "We love you Mrs. Hannigan" the second you saw the name? Maybe I watched Annie one too many time... okay, no doubt I did, as my little brother eventually took the taped and buried in our side yard, only to be discovered years later. So, I can't say I'm keen on the name. In fact, most of these names, are nms but I do like Finnegan as well.

Cow-eem-hee (was my first go at Caoimhe), but of course I knew it was completely wrong. But as a teacher, I would have gone to the office and asked there how I should pronounce the name on the first day of class when I'm taking roll. (Just like I did when I first saw the name Phouc.) I think it is a lovely spelling and I like how looking at it you know it's roots... even if you don't know quite how to say it. Which I imagine is why so many people here are in love with the original spelling. Keeva... you really have no idea the origins of the name when you read it.

So, I guess its up to you which is more important: people knowing how to pronounce the name or people knowing the origin of the name when reading it for the first time.

For what it's worth: I think that most of the time we hear a name first when we are introduced to someone and not as often read the name before we are introduced. And no matter how you spell it, people will ask how to spell "Kee-va."

By hyz
February 26, 2009 6:35 PM

I, too, vote for Caoimhe over Keeva, although I admit I'd personally be too timid to use Caoimhe myself, not wanting to deal with all the comments it would likely draw. The spelling/pronunciation issues with Caoimhe are markedly more severe than "is that Cathy with a C or a K" or "Do you pronounce Lena as Lee-na or Lay-na"--I'd be expecting more than a few insensitive souls to take it upon themselves to openly criticize your name/spelling choice. Still, I like the name, and like it much better than Keeva, which I agree seems divorced from its roots, making it look random and insubstantial. Caoimhe is pretty and interesting, and I think that most people would be able to remember the spelling and pronunciation with a little exposure. One word of caution after Eo's comment, though--I would *not* go with the pronunciation "Kweeva"--on a totally immature note, it sounds too much like queef, and seeing as how bullies tend to be immature... well, there you have it.

February 26, 2009 7:25 PM

@hyz - re: "Kweeva"... ITA & I'm in hysterics about your "totally immature note.";) Get your mind out of the gutter - so that mine can float by!! Whee!!

Ok, now in all seriousness-- I'm with those who think you should stick to the standard spelling of Caoimhe and all of those other lovely Celtic (but admittedly very hard for most Americans to say & spell) names. I had to scroll up again to avoid saying "queefa."

@SarahC - you're spot on about the "-igan" ending.

February 26, 2009 7:47 PM

I agree with the others re:Caoimhe (which btw I cut + pasted to get proper sp). It is beautiful looking, but hard to sp and pronounce. My head went to something close to Cammie even though I knew I was wrong too. Which reminds me of a website to check pron on Irish names.
I had posted it on another topic but reposted in case some may have missed it.

Re: Siobhan, Ditto what Aybee and others said- You and your dd may get tired of correcting, but you are informing just remember.

Re-igan names:
I agree this could be a new trend, and a much better one than the -ious names LOL! Looking at my local list I find
Trentin;Quentin;Kevin;Kalvin;Julian;Julien;Ethan;Dylan;Aiden (all sp) and Aaron but NO -gan names for boys. For girls Teagan is the only one and that's already an estblished name.

Laura I really think its the -iah trend that is in full swing right now-atleast in my area(PA).

February 26, 2009 7:49 PM

I prefer Caoimhe over Keeva as well, for the same reasons mentioned by others, Keeva could easily be a name you made up because you liked the sound. Having to spell out KEE-va would be much less irritating than having to admit that you NEEDED to spell out Ashley or Madeline if they were spelled Ashelea or Madalyne (eech). It can even be fun to draw attention to your name if you're proud of it:) I would especially use the original spelling if you are Irish or UK, as the only objection I have to traditional Irish names in North America would be that they are sort of in style, and using the original spelling to me definitely suggests significant heritage.

By Riot Delilah (not verified)
February 26, 2009 7:53 PM

Jessi - one more vote for Caoimhe in all its glory! It's a beautiful name worth all the hassle!

Eo/Hyz - Keeva is how they pronounce Caoimhe in Ulster and Leinster, while it's pronounced Queeva in Munster and Connacht. I learned the name in Ulster, and later worked with a bloke whose girlfriend from Cork had the name. And he once had a massive argument with me about my 'incorrect' pronunciation of her name.

And for everyone seeking a simple mnemonic, it's easy: it's the female version of Caoimhin. That's Kevin. Easy-peasy, once you know it...

February 26, 2009 8:55 PM

Thanks Riot Delilah for the mnemonic. However easy-peasy for some, Irish is apparently not in my blood. I saw Caoimhin as Cow-im-hin or just Cow-hin which I guess said with the right accent could be Kevin. I LOVE Irish/Celtic names but I just simply can't pronounce them.

By Eo (not verified)
February 26, 2009 9:00 PM

Ah, I never knew the original of "Kevin"! But "Caoimhin" is so interesting-- what a shame it didn't catch on here before the Kevin spelling.

Since there are so many of you Irish experts on here, can you tell me if "Banbh" (BANFF), my perennial favorite, is ever still used as a personal name?

Or is it obsolete? Maybe its dual meaning as either "unplowed field" or "piglet", has held it back?!

By Eo (not verified)
February 26, 2009 9:02 PM

Or, is it pronounced closer to "BANV"?

By Cathie (not verified)
February 26, 2009 9:17 PM

Is it just me? While I like the *idea* of the name Caoimhe, it may just be too much of a PITB to use here. I think it's way more difficult than Seamus or Siobhan or Sinead, because really none of the letters have their expected sound. Even though I now know how to say it, I still can't make myself say the name like that! I'd bet you would have to tell each person (except hard-core NE's of course) many times how to say the name. Not a reason not to use it but definitely something to keep in mind. I'm not a big fan of Keeva either though so I'm no help. I don't know what I'd do if I wanted to use that name!

By toothfairy (not verified)
February 26, 2009 9:25 PM

I know a 4-year old "Gwynedd." (Gwyneth). When I saw it written I thought it was a typo, but her mom patiently explained that she wanted to keep the original Welsh spelling. This endeared me more to the name, personally.

My vote, along with most of the other bloggers, is to go with the beautiful Irish spelling "Caoimhe," as long as you don't mind patiently pronouncing it to new people.

Our second son is Liam, which I think is pretty self-explanatory (and becoming quite common to boot!), but I still hear "Lie-um?" on occasion. My point being that people will mess up your child's name regardless, so a tricky spelling shouldn't matter.

February 26, 2009 10:11 PM

Cadogan West is the surname of a central figure in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans".

February 26, 2009 10:12 PM

Re spellings of names:
ANY name can be spelled ANY number of ways! I thought Eric was pretty simple but I was asked -"Is it E-R-I-C?" just the other day. I know there are other spellings of this name. Lately though, it seems that because there are so many alternate spellings of many other names that even the simplest of names has to be verified. I find this almost as annoying as having to spell/pronounce an uncommon name.

By guinness416 (not verified)
February 26, 2009 10:24 PM

It's not just you Cathie. I'm from Ireland and live in Canada. My cousins Eoghan & Daithi go by Owen & David to make their lives more managable, my friend Niamh is driven to distraction over the phone, and my sister Aoife has given up telling people how to spell her name when she visits. Caoimhe is a beautiful name, but in my opinion Keeva is a silly americanism and you're better off sticking with the original for a middle name.

Having said that, there ae as many Canhs and Themalchelvans as Jacks and Lucys here in Toronto, so maybe I'm being stubborn.

February 26, 2009 11:07 PM

re: Caoimhe: I would test this out on folks in your community, family members, etc. Just cuz NEs don't represent everyone! (I was able to spell the name this time without looking! So proud of myself! But I also have a pretty good memory for spelling...)

By Anne Onnimice (not verified)
February 26, 2009 11:27 PM

Way off topic...but read the names on this list, some are really interesting:

PS Maverick Maverick isn't the person's real name...

By Merigan (not verified)
February 27, 2009 2:03 AM

As a 21-year-old Merigan whose never met another one (nor anyone else who's ever met one), the prospect of little Mer(r)igans running around is kind of alarming. I think the first time I meet one (if that even happens), I won't even know how to react.

My name has been *mine* for so long, it's shocking just to see it here.

By Tau
February 27, 2009 2:15 AM

Jessi Ronan's Mum: I went to undergrad with an Aoife ("Eee-fa"). Of course she had to pronounce it a couple of times on the first day of every class, but after that it was fine. I never knew her very well but I always remembered her (fondly!) because of her name.

I'd say, go with Caoimhe. I'm sure your daughter will be as beautiful as her name is.

That said, I think non-intuitively-spelled names definitely need a solid tradition/history behind them to stand strong. Otherwise they're just ridiculous - you can't name your kid Loibve and pronounce it "Lee".

By carbonear (not verified)
February 27, 2009 8:48 AM

re: guinness416 --

It isn't really accurate to call "Keeva" a silly Americanism when the person asking about it is Canadian, is it? I guess at least we agree on the "silly" part! :)

By Eo (not verified)
February 27, 2009 8:52 AM

The more I think about it, the more I hope people will go with the authentic spelling of Irish names. Because of the strong feeling for Ireland in North America, these spellings are likely to be easily accepted, perhaps...

And that opens the door for their counterparts from Wales and other Celtic regions, with their delightful spellings. There can't be too many "Barriaght"s, "Hywel"s, "Flaunys"s, "Geraint"s "Moirrey"s for my taste-- I find them all so appealing and refreshing...

Even some of those spellings may represent a compromise or adaptation to English expectations, I don't know. But they open up a welcome new direction.

And this is such an elastic society, names become friendly and familiar very quickly. Case in point, the Today Show's Hoda Kotb (I THINK it's Kotb). I believe it is Egyptian in origin, and in the past, might have seemed "exotic".

Spotted on a very arty, confident woman the other day-- Zi Ata. Can only guess at the background-- Arabic? "Zi" I like whether it is the full name or an abbreviation...

February 27, 2009 10:30 AM

I hope we can all get along on this thread, whether we're "silly" or "not so silly" Americans, Canadians, Brits, Israelis, Martians, etc...

@Eo - Yes, "Zi" is a great name! Can anyone shed some light on its origins?

By Jessi Ronan's Mum (not verified)
February 27, 2009 11:07 AM

Wow Thanks so much for everyones thoughts,I really appreciate it. I think everyone made good points
Robyn T- I am Irish I came to live in Canada in my teens,I have always loved the name
Caoimhe , but I don't want to spell it some "Americanized"fashion, thats what I ment by authentic.

I also don't want to alienate the child either though,having to spell her bloody name all the time. Its tough, plus my husbands been quite unhelpful in the whole matter. When i spelled the name he just stared at me. I named Ronan, so I think he thought he would be doing the honors this time, but his girls name is Jen, Jen?No offence to the Jens of the world but I don't think it is gonna work for me. At this point I think I am hoping for a boy.Haha

By Daniella (not verified)
February 27, 2009 11:44 AM

I also know a Hannagan, who is 22. She's from Louisiana, it's a surname in her family. Perhaps it should be included in the list of "crossover" list because of the popularity of Hannah. (Although like Merigan above, she would probably be astonished to come across little Hannagans).

And for Jessi Ronan's Mum: Go with Caoimhe. It's a lovely name, and I would vote with sticking to that spelling which is both beautiful and traditional. Doesn't Keeva look a little made-up? I hope you're able to persuade your husband!

February 27, 2009 11:58 AM

Jessi Ronan's Mom- I recently taught myself how to say Caoimhe, it had come up and it bothered me that every time I saw it written I had trouble with it. So I think people are definitely teachable. Beyond that I agree with everyone voting for the Caoimhe spelling. It's just so beautiful and Keeva just falls flat to me. That said someone mentioned using it as a mn and that's another option for you if you have other fn options you like.

Amanda- I also saw Kherrington on So You Think You Can Dance and immediately thought of it for this post. I've never seen it anywhere else and don't know the history behind her having that name, but it certainly fits in with current trends.

February 27, 2009 11:59 AM

I think in order to be a trend a prefix or suffix needs to be able to be added to MANY roots in order to make a plethera of available new names. I just dont see it with the -igan suffix. Yes you have:
Merigan, Kerrigan, Brannigan, Hannigan, Madigan, Caddigan, and others but to me it seems like a very limited ending and also more suited to the boys than the girls.

By KRC (not verified)
February 27, 2009 12:03 PM

I also like Caoimhe, but not Keeva. I would be too timid to go for it, but I think the original spelling is beautiful.

Amanda - I think your friend must have heard Kherrington on the show So You Think You Can Dance. The girl was beautiful. I cannot get behind that spelling though. I actually think she spelled it Kherington. It hurts my eyes. Carrington is nicer, I think.

Amy3, did you see that the new show In the Motherhood has a little girl named Astrid? I saw a preview and freaked out. I am due in April and if this baby had been a girl, I would have wanted to name her Astrid. I got nervous when Jan on The Office named her baby Astrid, but I hoped it was a fluke. Then I saw this new show using it too, and I am wondering, is Astrid becoming trendy??? How can this happen to me? ;-) What do you guys think? I apologize if this has already been discussed - I've been gone for a while!

All in all, I'm glad this baby is a boy because I would be in major crisis mode right now if I were having a girl ...