8 Ways to Name a Baby After Someone…Even if You Hate Their Name

Sep 18th 2014

It's a funny thing about our ancestors: they're all older than us. Worse yet, they were born in the real past. That's the past where babies had names like Bernice, Mervin, Gladys and Wilfred, not the rose-tinted baby name past populated by names like Oliver, Julia, Gracie and Max.

What do you do when you want to honor a beloved relative's memory but her name doesn't fit your contemporary taste? Here are 8 strategies for naming after the name-fashion challenged:

1. The International Variant. If your relative had a traditional name, try looking to other languages for attractive translations. Ellen and Johnny could become Helena and Gianni, or Eleni and Ian. Past eras of English naming can help too; an uncle Peter could be honored with the medieval equivalent Piers.

2. The Nicknamesake. Great-Grandpa Wilfred's name may be a no go, but how about his nickname Will? Your little Will can still be a namesake, even if his full name is William or Wilson. Get creative with name roots and you'll find a surprising number of problem names can yield attractive "nicknamesakes."

3. The Middle Name. This is the most popular approach for today's parents, and the easiest. Just move the name down to the middle slot and choose a more stylish first name. The middle name solution preserves the honoree's name in its original form, and gives you an opening to tell your child stories of the wonderful individual they were named after. The downside is that you'll probably never use the middle name, so it won't conjure up memories the way a first-name namesake will.

4. The Surname. Don't forget that your loved ones had more than one name. A surname honor can come across as less specific, honoring a branch of the family rather than an individual. But if that family heritage meant a lot to your honoree, it may be a fitting tribute.

5. The Monogram. When more direct namesakes aren't an option, fall back on initials. Sharing initials with a special person is a subtle homage, but you can think of it as a secret message -- an unseen but powerful link between generations.

6. The Meaning. Most names have a literal derivation you can delve into for ideas. Leonard, for instance, comes from Germanic roots meaning "brave lion." You might honor a beloved Leonard with the name Ari, which is Hebrew for lion. WARNING: If you find yourself turning to this option, it probably means you've gotten desperate in your search for some kind of literal namesake. Before you make such an abstract connection, take some time to consider the next option.

7. The Non-Name "Namesake." Naming in honor of a person doesn't necessarily mean naming after him. Did your honoree have a personal hero? Was there a place that was special to him throughout his life? Did he have a passion that he passed on to you, that you hope to share with your child? Connecting to something a person loved can be a beautiful way to honor the life he lived.

8. The Original. Okay, you've run through all of your options for Grandma Martha. The international options stop at Marta. Grandma's unpronounceable surname is out of the question. An initial M won't sound like an homage to Martha, because your name is Melanie! And Martha is from the Aramaic for "lady," which is no help at all. Well, then...how about naming your daughter Martha? Give the original name a chance, it just might grow on you.


September 18, 2014 4:56 PM

I am probably the only person who thinks Wilfred sounds dapper, charming and quite ready for revival!

September 19, 2014 12:11 PM

My oldest has his great grandfathers name as a second middle name.
the second one has dh' name and my dad's middle name as his middle names.
the youngest has a very special friends last name (Strong) as a second middle name. was going to be that whether boy or girl.  

September 19, 2014 12:32 PM

lucubratrix - I was thinking the same thing about Wilfred. :)

By Amy3
September 19, 2014 1:50 PM

I like Wilfred too!

We opted for the mn route, not because the name wasn't one we liked, but because we wanted the fn to be unique to our daughter while the mn connected her to her family. My husband and I both have family mns so we continued that tradition.

My father, brother, and nephew all share initials, which I think is nice. 

September 19, 2014 10:54 PM

Another option is an anagram: Your mother Diana is honored with baby Nadia.  Grandma Edna becomes Aden, Dean or Dena, or you could play with the sounds and get Eden.

You could also do a mix of these, e.g. if Grandpa Eugene Light hates his his first name, you could name Elliot (~E. Light) after him.  Or if you don't like the names Martha or Hilda but want to honor Grandma Martha Hilda Light, perhaps you'd like Matilda. 

September 24, 2014 11:22 PM

I struggled with this with our second son and finally fell to option number 8. Although we often hear that "Raymond is my grandpa's name!!!" now that we have a two-year old Ray, it doesn't seem like an 'old man' name anymore. Kids love it because it's easy to pronounce, remember, and spell, and adults love it because it reminds them of their grandparents, parents, or friends. It's a win!

September 28, 2014 11:45 PM

What about the option of switching the gender? I mean, I have an uncle who is very important to me, as a child due to a speech impediment, I called him Ellie. If I had a daughter, I would consider nameing her Eleanor in his honor (usin Ellie as a nn). But for people who wish to honor a relative but aren't sure if you will have another child of the correct gender, using a feminization or masculinization of the name could be a interesting option. And it would be a great surprise for grandma Martha to find out that Baby Martin's name was inspired by her.

October 8, 2014 1:38 PM

We did these with all of my children's names...

My Grandfather was James and my DH's Jesus. So DS became Diego Jesus.

My DD's mn is Sion after the church that my in-laws have invested years of their lives in ministry.

My DS has the fn Cruz after my DH's grandmother's maiden name.

My youngest was named after her aunt who passed away as a child. Her name was Maria del Rosario. So, DD was named Rosario, but we call her Rio, which is also a homage to her father's birth place.

I love that all my kids have a family connection in their name but they are each their own, at the same time. So many of DH's family have just used the same name over and over until it's gotten old and confusing. We don't have that with our kids at all.