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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!