Surnames that still sound like surnames

Oct 28th 2009

Have you ever met a child named Connolly? How about Barker, or Janson? Most likely not, but if you did I doubt you'd bat an eyelash. So many surnames of the British Isles are used as baby names right now that those fit right in.

That's good news for parents who want to "fit right in." What if that's not your goal? What if you chose Barker because it's your family surname and you want it to sound like a surname, darn it, not like some trendy spinoff of Parker? Or maybe you just miss the buttoned-down prep school style that used to come along with surname-names. When names like Chandler and Dalton have gone mainstream, where's a stuffed shirt afficionado to turn?

Here's one clue. Since quarterback Peyton Manning's first college game, the popularity of the name Peyton -- a traditional surname -- has soared. You can see spikes in the name at notable moments in Manning's career, like a record-setting season and a Super Bowl victory. But...why Peyton? Why not Manning? Manning has plenty of history as a first name, and it gets a double dose of publicity because Peyton's brother Eli is also a championship quarterback.

What Peyton has (and Manning lacks) is an ending from the golden trinity: -n, -r and -y. Today, the vast majority of surname-names cling to those three fashionable sounds. If you're willing to move beyond them, you can still find plenty of names with unadulterated surname style.

Names ending in -ing like Manning are one neglected group. A reader recently wrote to me about a sterling example (no, not Sterling): Fielding. It still has the power to surprise, doesn't it? It may be another British isle surname, but it won't get lost in a sea of Parkers and Peytons.

The -s surnames, particularly patronymic names, are another good target for old-time surname sound. A century ago many names like Evans, Hughes, Hayes and Clemens hit the top 1000, but today Brooks and Davis are the only survivors of the style. That leaves the -s names impeccably buttoned-down.

Put the two styles together and the effect is magnified. A name like Jennings or Hastings practically comes with its own bow tie.

This isn't for everyone, of course. Some people will find the ultra-surnames a little forced, even pretentious. Others will assume that these old-fashioned names were chosen the old-fashioned way, and ask about the importance of the name Fielding or Hayes in your family tree. But if you want pure surname style undiluted by the Peyton generation, try these:





October 28, 2009 11:16 AM

I'm not a big fan of the "ing" names, but I do like several of the 's' ones, including Rhodes and Holmes. The latter would be great for a Conan Doyle fan! I also like Hastings, too bad it sounds over-the-top pretentious with our surname.

By Ash (not verified)
October 28, 2009 11:18 AM

Hey! I have an -ings surname (though just uncommon enough not to post)! Though I must say, I feel like the name is too Southern to give an appropriately stuffy feel. Then again, isn't the South known for using surnames as names . . . could fit right in. :)

Joking aside, I can see a lot of the names mentioned in the post as baby names. The -s names in particular have a real appeal in that many of them are rooted in otherwise popular names, but the s gives them a little something extra.

By hyz
October 28, 2009 11:35 AM

Funny, I like the -ing ones but find a lot of the -s ones too stuffy. Fielding, Henning, and Redding appeal to me.

If you want a surname that still sounds like a surname, all you have to do is venture away from the British isles. Hoffmann Jones? Schaeffer Edwards? Kandinsky Johnson? Mancini Smith? Shin McNamara? I specifically picked names with the "magic endings", but I think they all still pretty clearly sound like surnames, and I think it would take a fairly adventurous soul to pick any of them.

October 28, 2009 11:41 AM

Love your examples, Hyz! I think Kandinsky Johnson is a future star (maybe a punk rocker or movie director?)

By PunkPrincessPhd (NLI) (not verified)
October 28, 2009 11:45 AM

I can't help but feel that there is still a hefty dose of WASP-ism attached to this trend - just as there is more than a whiff of Green-Beer-ism inherent in the Mc-Surname-as-first-name phenomenon. So I definitely agree with hyz that going outside the cultural box adds an unexpected and fresh element. Personally, I think Kandinsky Johnson is fabulous!

But why the western bias against a more obviously ethnic surname-as-first? Partly, as Laura said, it reflects what "sounds like a name" to western ears - names that fit into that semi-familiar pattern. But with the reinvention of naming patterns, shouldn't this definition be shifting into more adventurous territory?

Maybe that's a question for Laura: is naming, then, essentially conservative, in that it won't move outside a certain margin of cultural or phonetic patterns?

October 28, 2009 11:46 AM

I got to wondering if part of the surname-as-firstname trend can be traced to tv shows that refer to characters by last names? On lots of police procedural type shows they call each other by their last names. I've recently noticed Beckett and Garcia on different tv shows. Maybe they're the Peyton and Parker of tomorrow?

And I agree that Kandinsky is pretty great. I could actually see that one as a name, the rest of hyz's examples not so much.

By jennifer h (not verified)
October 28, 2009 11:48 AM

We almost used Brooks. So close but it sounded odd with the already decided midde name. I still love it though and it may get another shot someday. I love surnames as fns but I don't care for the -ing ones. I'm not sure why.

By Another Jessica (not verified)
October 28, 2009 11:50 AM

I am one of those who wishes she could use family surnames. My spouse won't consider any of my options since all of them have trodden the path of recent popular culture and naming fads (e.g., Walker, Saunders, etc.).

October 28, 2009 11:51 AM

I have a sky last name that I could never use as a first name but it was the joke when I was pregnant. Too bad though, it would stand out as a first name for sure!

October 28, 2009 11:55 AM

I'd like to add Fleming/Flemming to the -ing list! It's in use in Norway, and I always loved it for the Ian Fleming connection! ^^

Also, Hemming is a Norwegian surname with tradition as a first name, but it's not used today because of it being a derogatory term for disability in Norway... It sounds nice though, so I would hate to see it fall out of use!

Travers, Yates, Evers, Holmes, Hughes, Clemens, Ames, Brooks, Hayes, Holmes and Hastings appeal greatly to me, but Travers and Hayes perhaps more than the others... Travers is a good Trevor alternative!
Carling, Channing, Fielding Manning and Redding also appeal, but Fleming is the best with the -ing enindg in my opinion!

All in all a wonderful blog ^^
Thank you!

By PunkPrincessPhd (NLI) (not verified)
October 28, 2009 11:57 AM

Thinking about it, I realized that DH and I are/have been guilty of this pattern in our own naming process: we considered lots of family surnames (mostly as middle names, but any could be potential firsts). Razzell, Rumsey, Shearer, Read, Hogan, and Miller all featured on the list, but Steiger and Molyneaux and a few of the more obscure Ukrainian examples....not so much.

SO while we could argue that these were further back in the family tree and therefore not as significant in terms of personal meaning, I think the aesthetic qualities and the familiarity factor play a big part.

By hyz
October 28, 2009 12:08 PM

Funny--I rather liked Kandinsky myself. Maybe that's the way to break into non-British surnames--through the European modern art world and its associated hipness factor? Rothko, Warhol, Pollock, Klee, Saarinen, Mondrian, Brancusi, and Basquiat all seem to have some promise. De Kooning, Munch, and Frankenthaler maybe not so much. ;)

By Birgitte (not verified)
October 28, 2009 12:10 PM

Actually, I know one Hemming (age 35?) and several named Henning.

Henning is a traditional Norwegian first name and is not a surname at all in Norway.

October 28, 2009 12:31 PM

I've actually looked at my family tree surnames for potential mn's (ln as fn isn't as much my style) and it can be hard to find ones that work well, I don't have any of the ones listed above! And my ln ends in -tz (which is why I was looking for others that might work better for flow for my kids...).

For the names above, Hawken seems like a great contender nowadays, I can just see some parents loving the nn Hawk. Also some of these surnames seem like good options if people don't like nn's- Evans nn would just be Evan really and that's "not his name" so I feel like you could get people to stick with the full name. The same is true of Hughes. And what would you call Hastings for short? Haste?:) Tings?:) On the other side if you are looking to honor Bill but don't like William, Billings would be perfect and you get the nn Bill!

By Kim in Philly (not verified)
October 28, 2009 12:35 PM

I would have loved to use my maiden name as a fn- Noble. But, it just doesn't work. Maybe because it sometimes sounds like No Bull. It's a shame. I am saving it as mn possibilty. In my family tree is an Anne Reagan. I always wanted to use that as fn for a girl, but then it became so popular. :( Must be the -n ending! Unfortunately, I could never do an -s ending fn. It would turn into Haye Spiderman instead of Hayes Byderman. Another :(

By hyz
October 28, 2009 12:58 PM

lol, "hey spiderman" is pretty great! I can't do names with S at the end because of the LN, too, so I'll join you with a :(. I do think Noble could be pretty cool, though.

And I agree, Hawken is a good bet!

By moll (not verified)
October 28, 2009 1:00 PM

I like Noble, too! I think I would think virtue/adjective name before it would register that it was a surname, and "no bull" probably wouldn't occur to me.
My aunt wanted my parents to name my sister or I Arrigan, a family surname. I am SO happy they didn't, as it sounds like "arrogant" when you're introduced.

By Felicia (NLI) (not verified)
October 28, 2009 1:02 PM


I always love your posts. I think you underestimate the coolness factor of having the Spiderman moniker to a little boy. :)

October 28, 2009 1:11 PM

Kim- I actually like the sound of Noble Byderman! And the way I say it NO-ble it doesn't really sound like No Bull to me... That would be more like no[minipause]BULL.

moll- Arrigan on the other hand doesn't work quite as well...:)

By Guest (not verified)
October 28, 2009 1:36 PM

I don't really want this to happen, but a little part of me wishes that surnames-as-first-names were illegal for families who cannot demonstrate a legitimate link to the name. My maiden name has been sullied by people searching for a pretentious preppy-sounding name for their children, and now it is too trendy for use on my children.

There are so many first names that have always been first names that have fallen from use that would get the "Wow that's different!" reaction that so many people are seeking when they select a random surname from the phone book.

Does anyone else find this site extremely difficult to browse? When I try to scroll through the comments, the browser sort of jumps around. I don't experience this on any other sites. What's wrong?

October 28, 2009 1:37 PM

From last post... PJ- What a great list! It was so neat to see Avonlea on there, I don't know if you were here for our discussion about that name, but I think it's a neat option and I love the Anne of Green Gables connection!

By Landry (nli) (not verified)
October 28, 2009 1:43 PM

DH and I know a little Br1ggs in our social circle. I'm curious if it is a family name for them but feel somehow rude asking; sort of like I'm implying that it *should* be when they may have picked it for multiple other reasons.
Also--Rothko is fantastic! I have completely fallen in love with it. DH and I are still debating having more children, but I may have to insist we keep going so I can use this name :)

October 28, 2009 2:06 PM

I was looking over the -s list with interest, because many -s surnames are based off a first name anyway. Would Edwards or Roberts get use as long as Edward or Robert hangs around?

It also makes me wonder if a number of names in other cultures would just use the base name instead: Gonzalez -> Gonzalo, Velasquez -> Velasco, Vasilis -> Vasili?

PPP, you may have answered your own question about "more obviously ethnic" surnames. Why would we consider an English or Irish name as any less ethnic than any other name? Actually, come to think of it, American use of English probably has a lot to do with that. I myself have some British Isles ancestry (about 3/16), but my first and last names are fully English.(My ancestors changed their last names when they came to the US. Amusingly, one of the branches had changed their last name centuries ago when they left the British Isles for Germany...).

Actually, that's kind of an interesting story. The branch in question changed their surname to Schled0rn when they left Britain for Germany. They integrated into Germany. Then, some of the Schled0rns left for America, and voluntarily changed their name to Sl@ter (this was even pre-Ellis Island). Because of this history, I now have a cousin with the first name Sl@ter.

October 28, 2009 2:11 PM

@guest 20--the site never works properly for me in Internet Explorer. I have better luck scrolling if I use Mozilla Firefox.

@Linnaeus--I have a similar story to yours actually, a family branch that went English-German-American. They kept pretty much the same name though, not as drastic a change as your family.

October 28, 2009 2:22 PM

It's so funny you mention Manning and Fielding - I recently (like 2 months ago) added them to "the list" :)

My husband is a huge Peyton Manning fan (we're from Indy) and I looooove -ing names. One day during a game I said, "What do you think of Manning for a boy?" He thought it should definitely go on the list.

I was thinking Garrett Fielding for a 3rd boy, after my dad (Gary Frederick). But I feel like it might suffer from the law firm problem?

Oh, and I think Avonlea(g) is getting added to the list. I fell in love with it as soon as I read it!

October 28, 2009 2:26 PM

i'm from indy! :D

By Daffy Castilian (not verified)
October 28, 2009 2:47 PM

Rothko! Like Theriff Rothko P. Coltrane from the Dukth of Hathard!

October 28, 2009 2:53 PM

haha, that is the only thing i don't like about rothko--to me it sounds like roscoe, with a lisp. other than that, i like it quite well.

By Daffy Castilian (not verified)
October 28, 2009 3:06 PM

Thorry for the thnark, but I had to thay thomething.

By jenjenjen (not verified)
October 28, 2009 3:10 PM

There's only one surname I brought up with my husband as a possibility when I was pregnant: Becket. But we named our son Henry, so now that one's a no-go unless we want to venture into "meddlesome priest" reference territory.

By PunkPrincessPhd (NLI) (not verified)
October 28, 2009 3:25 PM


I think you're spot on with the Ellis Island "effect" - there is and has long been a tendency towards Anglicization of names that do not "fit" the western (i.e. English-language) pattern.

I would like to clarify that I personally feel that English/Irish names are as "ethnic" as any other - I meant in the general perception. That, of course, is a much big (and thornier!) question.

October 28, 2009 3:26 PM

"I can't help but feel that there is still a hefty dose of WASP-ism attached to this trend"

Oh, absolutely! In fact, that was the whole idea of this post -- finding the "waspiest" possible options. Whether surname names should branch out to other ethnic origins is a different (and interesting) topic.

One issue is that the "waspiness" of surname names isn't just about their British origins, it's about strains of American culture in which British isles surnames were traditionally adopted as first names. (E.g. Edith Wharton's New York.) So the choice of one of those names is a nod to that usage tradition.

AFAIK there's no tradition anywhere of using surnames like Kuznetsov or Yamaguchi or Nussbaum as first names. So choosing a name like that -- IF you're not honoring a particular individual or your own family name -- could seem stylistically random & unconnected to any existing cultural threads.

October 28, 2009 3:26 PM

MelissaBKB- I actually don't think Garrett Fielding is too "law firm like" because Garrett is pretty common as a first name. It would depend on your last name though:). And I'm so glad you like Avonlea so many great nn options Ava, Avalea (OMG I just made that up and totally love it! pron. Ava-lee), Lea (pron. Lee or Leah) Alea, this is fun:)

By Guest (not verified)
October 28, 2009 3:27 PM

jenjenjen: I think it would be the rare person who hears Henry and Becket together and thinks Henry II and Thomas a Becket (unless maybe you're British). People just aren't that well educated--they don't know their medieval history like they should, and "Murder in the Cathedral" doesn't get read/performed all that much. I think you're safe.

By barge202 (not verified)
October 28, 2009 3:31 PM

My brother's name is Manning. Though he can be a punk at times, I've always liked the name:)

October 28, 2009 3:40 PM

yes, jenjenjen,
i was about to say: i have nooo idea what you are talking about. midieval history is not my strong point. but for the record, i do know a little boy names beckett (he'd be...3 or 4 now, i think). he's adorable. :]

oh, for what it's worth, if i have any association with beckett, it's samuel beckett the playwright, which is an association i like, but it isn't a strong one.

By Lyle Blake Smythers (not verified)
October 28, 2009 3:40 PM

I love the idea of Klee as a first name, but only if pronounced like the painter's name. The problem is that you would spend your whole life (a) explaining to people who saw it written down that it's pronounced "clay" and not "cleee" and (b) explaining to people who had only heard it spoken that it's spelled K-L-E-E and not C-L-A-Y.

As someone whose last name is a spelling variation of the common form (I mean with a "y" as opposed to "Smithers"), I tend to be sensitive to being in the situation of ALWAYS ALWAYS having to spell your name. Even then, they get it wrong over 50 per cent of the time.

By Lyle Blake Smythers (not verified)
October 28, 2009 3:40 PM

I love the idea of Klee as a first name, but only if pronounced like the painter's name. The problem is that you would spend your whole life (a) explaining to people who saw it written down that it's pronounced "clay" and not "cleee" and (b) explaining to people who had only heard it spoken that it's spelled K-L-E-E and not C-L-A-Y.

As someone whose last name is a spelling variation of the common form (I mean with a "y" as opposed to "Smithers"), I tend to be sensitive to being in the situation of ALWAYS ALWAYS having to spell your name. Even then, they get it wrong over 50 per cent of the time.

By Eo (not verified)
October 28, 2009 3:48 PM

Whenever we have this surname convo, I always dredge up one of my favorite go-to sources:

"The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames" by Basil Cottle.

You can find so many obscure, wonderful, colorful choices, with great meanings, sounds, and images!

I often think that people who rule out surnames as too "pretentious" are thinking way too narrowly.

A guy in the Middle Ages with the last name "Herapath" (Old English-- meaning: military road or highway) is just as legit a source for an interesting name as a flower, or a mythical god, or a historical figure...

It's true that it seems to be the English speaking countries that traditionally have bestowed surnames as first names, often as a way of preserving the mother's maiden name or other family surnames.

A percentage of that may be "snobbish", but most of it isn't. The vast majority of people with English backgrounds are not WASPs by the authentic definition.

The term white anglo-saxon protestant, although it seems to be broad, was coined by a writer (was it Digby Baltzell? I'm forgetting his name) to refer to a very specific, tiny group of Americans.

He was talking about people who attended prep school and the Ivy League, had a specific set of values, who often knew each other, and had a rather mandarin social structure.

Most people with English names and backgrounds don't come anywhere near that definition. They are just as likely as any other ethnic group to have yeomen and "peasants" in their ancestry, like I do-- their great, great grandparents might have been shopkeepers, subsistence farmers, drifters, Cockneys, stone masons, chimney sweeps, and on and on..

You can be anglo saxon and protestant, like most of my family, and be cheerfully and thoroughly plebeian, AND, have a tradition of handing down these family names, which my mostly impoverished family did.

I'd love to learn of other cultures that do. In the past here, I've suggested "Schaeffer" after spotting an arty young woman with the name. I'm sure there are tons of other German, Italian, or Asian names that would lend themselves to surname-naming. Love to hear if anyone knows of any actual, living examples...

Oh, here's one: "Machiavelli"! If only it didn't have some famously unfortunate associations, it would be great...

By hyz
October 28, 2009 3:48 PM

Lyle, I agree, the spelling/pronunciation issues would put me off Klee for sure, but I know it doesn't bother some people as much as it bothers me. I still like Rothko, though, better than Roscoe, actually. I love that soft "th" sound in general, and Roscoe seems more like a dog/cat name to me, for some reason (maybe the similarity to Rascal?).

Oh, and I think Garrett Fielding is quite handsome.

By lynz (not verified)
October 28, 2009 4:03 PM

I wish I knew where to find der and ton names.

October 28, 2009 4:10 PM

Re: Avonlea, that was my first thought, that the parents must be big AOGG fans. If so, it's a nice tribute name.

By hyz
October 28, 2009 4:16 PM

How is Avonlea pronounced? When I read the books as a kid, I always assumed it was AA-von-lee, with A as in apple. I recently heard the book on tape, though, and it was said as AY-VON-LEE, all three syllables stressed and separated by a little pause as though they were almost 3 separate words.

October 28, 2009 4:21 PM

My grandfather and uncle were both named Henning, so I am fond of that one. Author Henning Mankell is a nice reference as well. I did have trouble getting used to a friend's husband's name (Evans), but after a few weeks I got used to it and didn't mentally call him Evan. I like the quirky -s ending.

October 28, 2009 4:22 PM

hyz, i was about to ask the same thing, except i was concerned with the end: whether it was lee or le-ah.
however, i think that the /a/ sound you're talking about is one of those that would easily differ between dialects. both sound right to me, though i personally would tend to say ay-von-lee, as there's a town near me called avon (pronounced ay-von).

October 28, 2009 4:25 PM

Wow! Finally, our friends have named their baby (they waited right up till the six-week deadline). To recap, they have Ben, Harry, Emelia (Ella), Lily (who passed) and Maya (pronounced May-a, not My-a). And the new arrival is:

Luc@ Reuben F!nn .

It's quite cute, I think, and following a few trends- pan-European, two names ending in -n, using Finn, which is becoming such a popular choice). I think their time in Italy (the last few years) has definitely affected their naming style. It will be interesting to see if their English neighbors will be able to handle a boy with a name ending in -a.

By Sebastiane (not verified)
October 28, 2009 4:29 PM

I think its interesting that only English or Irish surnames ever get changed into first names. Even when its a family name, the name always seems to be of Anglo or Irish origins. I wonder how it would be taken if I used my surname on a child (which is full of all the lovely Slavonic rhythm). It would definitly be unique, no? Have you ever met a child with the first name of Urbanski or Kowalski? How about Greenberg. Those would be quite the eye raiser, but then again, if Anglo-Surnames can be trendy, why not Urbanski or Greenberg?

By Eo (not verified)
October 28, 2009 4:30 PM

Very cute! Love that they used "Reuben", Valerie, one of my favorites. Gosh, I've been noticing it cropping up a bit more lately-- wonder if it's on the verge of going from under-used Biblical to trendy...

By hyz
October 28, 2009 4:34 PM

emilyrae--right, and there's the Avon ladies and Stratford-upon-Avon, too, of course. But I grew up around places called things like Avondale and Avonworth, and all those A's were like apple, so I just assumed Avonlea would be the same way.

By Tintin LaChance (not verified)
October 28, 2009 4:37 PM

Don't forget Hawking! Talk about a name possibility.

I find the -ing names particularly interesting because they pose an open (or ajar, at least) door into the possibility of a less British-Isles-centric world of surname names. Names like Kemmerling, Heidling, Gehring, Ameling, Kisling, Menting, and so forth aren't English, but they have a similar aesthetic to those on your list. A bit more consonant-heavy, which I suppose would put them as significantly weaker contenders as far as mainstream acceptance goes, but they'd certainly stand out.

An a tangentially related note, if we're going to have kids with surname names all over the place, I'd love to see Vogel get some use. It's short, easy to say, and the meaning is lovely (literally "bird," it suggests that the original bearer was a happy person). It'd be really nice to see more surnames with a background that isn't somewhere in the UK.