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This is a question frequently Googled: how to match baby names with your surname. After reading birth notices every week for more than a year, I’ve seen thousands of names, and often thought how nicely, or how awkwardly, their first and last names matched, so I feel reasonably well-qualified to share my views.
Although there’s many ways to approach this, I decided the best place to start is to work out what kind of surname you have, and then go on from there.
The Common Surname
If your surname is one of the most common, you have quite a bit of choice, since almost any type of first name will match it. Yearning for something slightly unusual? Amarantha Gray sounds just fine. Want something classic for a seamless match? George Anderson is perfect. Love contemporary popular names? Paige Hamilton is for you. Charmed by vintage style? Maybe you will like Harold Price.
Should you go down the common first name + common last name route, remember to whack in a rare middle name somewhere. This isn’t just so your child doesn’t end up with something that looks like the placeholder name on credit card brochures – it’s to help with identification. Otherwise Thomas James Martin could be in for a lifetime of proving who he is.
The Rare Yet Regular-Sounding Surname
There are some British surnames which sound ordinary but are extremely rare – even unique. The identity issue with these names is that it can be hard to maintain privacy, especially when matched with a rare first name. My preference for a rare surname is a first name which is normal-sounding, and neither obscure nor super common. As rare surnames are often of great antiquity, I like old-fashioned and retro names to match them, and family trees can be a great source of inspiration.
The Long Surname
For reasons of practicality, lengthy surnames tend to go best with shorter first names, if only so they can fit on government forms. Sure, you can always ask for extra paper, but do you really trust bureaucrats not to lose half your application? Extremely long names can even be rejected by Births, Deaths and Marriages.
The Short Surname
The general advice is that if you have a one-syllable surname, you need a longer first name to balance it. This seems to be thought especially necessary for girls, who apparently need something elegant and flowing in order to offset their petite surname.
I don’t think that’s obligatory, as I can’t see a problem with being called Jack Black, Claire Holt, Glenn Ford, Grace Wong, Charles Wood or Rose Byrne (yep these are all famous people). Two short names together can seem blunt, punchy and memorable, so if that’s your style, then go for it. If you want something longer, then that’s excellent too.
The Heavy, Ponderous Surname
If your surname is quite stodgy or cumbersome, like Trenchard or Blenkinsopp, don’t attempt to balance it with something fluffy, or double the problem by adding an equally heavy first name. Seek to soften the sound, rather than lighten it. I think these surnames go well with something plain, classic and elegant, when they can end up sounding very dignified.
The Cute Surname
With a surname that’s on the whimsical side, such as Pook or Dingle, a rare, eccentric, or very cute name can wind up sounding like something out of Charles Dickens or Enid Blyton. Be careful with alliteration or assonance, because Rupert Pook or Dorothy Dingle is hitting the Whimsy-o-Meter a little hard. Modern classics and popular names can act as ballast with these surnames.
The Surname Which is Commonly Known as a First Name
I think if you have a surname which is well known as a first name, you should avoid first names which were originally surnames. Cooper Henry seems certain to get his name muddled on a regular basis.
The Difficult to Spell or Pronounce Surname
There are two schools of thought on this one. One states that if your surname always needs to be spelled out, then the first name should be something very plain and simple so only one name needs explanation. The other says that since the person is going to be spelling their name out anyway, they might as well cover two names as one. As someone with a married surname that needs spelling out, I lean towards the first theory, as I’m glad of a simple first name in these situations.
The Common Surname with a Variant Spelling
Following this line of thought, if you are a Smyth or a Johnstone, I would avoid a first name that has multiple accepted ways of spelling it, such as Isobel or Kayden. Pick something that is nearly always spelled one way, such as Alice or William.
The Surname Which is Also a Word
Many English surnames are also words, and you have to be careful that you don’t accidentally turn your child’s name into a sentence or a description. Olive Carter is a job title, Isabella Plum a question which can only be answered with No, and Daisy Knight seems like an oxymoron.
If your surname is Woods, Forrest, Bush, Orchard, Garden or Gardener, that rules out flower and tree names. Body part names like Head, Neck and Legg can’t have colour names in front of them. We’ve all heard about Lee King and Joe King – but Milla King doesn’t sound too good either. Check the nickname as well, as there must be many parents who brought home a Robert Banks from the hospital, only to realise their mistake later.
Having Fun with a Word Surname (Enter At Your Child’s Risk)
Some people with word-name surnames are tempted to do something playful with it. Sometimes this can be cute but cheesy, as with Ruby Swann or Isla Fairweather. Other times it sounds lame, like Sonny Day or Will Power. Skye Light is just silly, and Honey Pye slightly cruel.
Before you turn your child’s name into a permanent joke, think carefully before going with Penny Lane, Forrest Greene, Strawberry Fields, or River Jordan. To be honest though, I think most people with these kind of names actually love them (or come to love them). Just make sure it’s a fun joke name, not a bad joke name – Mary Christmas is nicer than Candy Kane, Rusty Carr or Rainbow Trout.
The Surname Which Sounds Like a Word
Some surnames aren’t words, but they sound like words, and especially once said aloud, can fulfil the same function. For example, Clementine Daley sounds like a method of obtaining more Vitamin C. There is no connection between the surname Hoare and the word whore, and when I meet someone named Hoare, I don’t think of the word whore. Unless their name is Scarlett. And what were Misty Hyman‘s parents thinking?
The Problematic Surname
I’m not going to sugarcoat it, some surnames are going to attract attention, no matter what name is in front of them. Apart from making sure you aren’t falling into any of the usual “word name traps” (such as Adam Bastard, Blake Death or Mae Freak), I think if you have one of these slightly difficult surnames, you should choose something inconspicuous for the first name. James Glasscock is probably easier to live with than the more flamboyant Aloysius Glasscock.
The Non-Anglo Surname
Some people believe that if you have an Italian surname (for example), only an Italian first name sounds right with it. Others say that if you live in an English-speaking country but have a non-English name, your child’s first name needs to be English so they can fit in more easily.
I don’t really agree with either of these notions, as I think both can work, depending on what suits you. I think I have seen almost every combination of names by ethnic origin, and I’ve never once though, Oh no, Finnish and Fijian don’t go together, or You can’t have a Chinese surname with a Spanish first name! Your surname, no matter what country it originates from, doesn’t have to lock you into a box.
If you’ve read through this and realised that your surname is neither very common nor very rare, of moderate length, neither ponderous nor whimsical, not commonly used as a first name, easy to spell and pronounce, not a vocabulary word or otherwise problematic, and not from a different cultural background … well, you shouldn’t really have any major problems!
Gave dear son a word name and all was good. Re-married a man with a word name last name. Now suddenly all was not good. Son’s name is still my favorite name of all time and we did not change it. He has learned to live with the jokes about it and while not thrilled has commented it is his name.
Yes that happens – just like when women marry (or re-marry) and take their new husband’s name, they sometimes find it doesn’t always sound perfect. I’m glad your son has learned to embrace his new name.
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Your advice for pairing suitable christian names with the different types of surnames is very helpful.
I’d love your advice for my son who was born yesterday. Our surname is Allsopp, which I think falls into the heavy, stodgy category.
We really want to call our son Max, but ideally want a longer variant. We’ve decided his middle name is a Roger (after his grand-dad). We both love Maxwell, and though Maxwell Roger Allsopp looks pretty good written down,
I’m concerned Maxwell Allsopp might have too much ‘L’ in it, and not flow. We also love the feel and spirit of Maxwell, ie cool and a bit debonair, but not too serious, ie Maxwell Smart and Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.
Our other Max options are just plain Max, or Maximilian Roger Allsopp, which feels a little cumbersome and serious. Any advice/feedback would be greatly appreciated.
I absolutely love Max Allsop – it’s jaunty, and definitely lightens the Allsop. Maxwell Allsop is just a tiny bit L-heavy, but you love it, and let’s face it, he’s going to be Max most of the time.
I think Maxwell Roger Allsop aka Max Allsop, sounds like a winner! 🙂
Hi there, I just stumbled upon your site (& boy am I glad I did!) I agreed with all of the above & found it very helpful. I am currently really suffering finding a boys & girls name to go with what I would consider a heavy & quite harsh sounding surname in ‘Crouch’. Would you suggest sticking to the classic, elegant (& in a girls case feminine name)?
I think Crouch is a strong, sensible surname. I think it would work well with unpretentious classics, slightly old-fashioned names, retro and vintage names, Biblical names, and very English-sounding names. I’m thinking dignified names like Sarah, Martha, Susannah, Emmeline, Adeline, Edith, Matilda, Elizabeth, Audrey, Harriet, Esther, Eleanor, Alice and Beatrice.
Probably best to avoid place names and word names – I thought of Adelaide, but wondered if Adelaide Crouch might sound like the name of a bizarre dance?
I did try some one-syllable names, like Ruth, but did find them a bit heavy-sounding with Crouch, and cute names like Polly sounded whimsical and slightly odd.
what about hyphenated surnames ,
Most of them would be quite long I expect, and possibly a bit clunky or awkward. Other than that, I would proceed as for any other name.
It would be tough if you had combined two radically different names together with very different styles – probably not recommended for that reason.
I must say I have seen some strange hyphenated combinations – one family I saw were named Bufalo, and they had intermarried with a family named Wilde. Why they had decided to hyphenate their names as Wilde-Bufalo I have no idea!
What style of name goes with Reed? It is quite a common surname, I suppose you would use a longer name in front. I have trouble coming up with good ‘flow’ combinations with middles etc, esp since if I have a girl I won’t be able to resist using 2 middles 🙂 maybe a blog post idea there?
You could use a longer name with Reed if you wished, although personally I don’t have a problem with two short names together.
Reed is a vocabulary name (and sounds like the word “read” as well), so I would be careful matching it with a vocabulary name like Grace or Autumn, and to me Paige Reed sounds silly, as would any of the “literary” names like Poet or Story. Just make sure to say everything aloud, in case it accidentally sounds like a phrase eg Isabella Reed = is a bell a reed?.
Apart from that, I think you have a pretty free hand with a plain classic name like Reed.
I will add your suggestion to the list, thank you! 🙂
Yes those are good points, it is a shame as I love flower names, but Lily Reed is probably a bit off! Also William is a family name I was wanting to use,but I have realised this would be a sentence, as in ‘Will Reed’! You really do have to think carefully about this stuff.
All great points. Personally, my issue is with mismatching letters and sounds – a soft g as in Ginevra with a typical j as in Jeffries. Ginevra Jeffries hurts me visually, while Jillian Jeffries makes sense. It just has to “look right.” I know someone, let’s call her Alicia Tomporow, and it just doesn’t look right – the letters aren’t balanced.
For myself, I like to look for names that compliment my surname, which is very Polish and awkward, with a dark vibe. Something dainty like Lily or sunny like Daisy would never sound right.
Like anything else, what “sounds good” in names is a matter of taste – I’ve seen names I consider absolute shockers, while the parents who gave them obviously thought they sounded nice!
Your surname sounds as if it’s a “heavy and cumbersome” one, and yes I wouldn’t attempt matching it with something fluffy, cute or sweet. I’d probably prefer something smooth, sleek and elegant to soften it without clashing, and if you wanted to accentuate the darkness of it, could go with something a little “vampire and werewolf”, if you know what I mean! 🙂
Our surname is a Rare Yet Regular, which I rather like, because it seems boring, but is very uncommon. So we get to have an unusual name that nobody ever asks questions about (except how to spell it), and doesn’t stand out in any way.
Blue Juniper said:
I have a cousin named Alice Smyth, so looks like my Aunty agreed with your advice 🙂
I also have a boss with the unfortunate name Wayne Carr. I didn’t twig until I showed up for my job interview and went to tell the receptionist who I was there to see. Definitely made me wonder if I had his name right for a minute! He’s pretty sure his parents didn’t realise that this could be a problematic combination.
There’s a Wayne Carr who played rugby league in the 1970s, and a basketball coach of the same name. There’s quite a few, so your boss’ parents definitely weren’t the only ones not to realise. It was probably a more innocent era.
Most of my family have common names despite our common last name as do most the Smiths I’ve seen. I’m Ebony Anne my dad is Darren James my cousin is Aimee Louise. I know a family of James, Kaitlyn and Emily with the last name of smith.
I happen to know an Ebony Woods. Some woods with trees for Ebony??
Ebony Woods isn’t too bad – it’s more cute and cheesy than anything else.