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And Surnames-as-First-Names

A surname is your last name, your family name, a name that is passed along from generation to generation, usually from parent to child. For a long time people did not have surnames. Settlements were small and scattered, and one name, one’s personal name, was all that was needed to identify a person. But society grew and evolved and personal names were duplicated. As now there might be two Tom, six Johns, and five Marys in one town, the need for a second name grew.

The first solution was the “byname,” a phrase tacked on to one’s personal name for descriptive purposes. One Tom is called Tom the Butcher, because he is a butcher. The other Tom is called Tom, David’s son because he is David’s son. These bynames were temporary appellations, unique to the individual, and were not passed on to future generations.

But gradually, as the Middle Ages wore on, “bynames” were solidified and given to one’s children. This began with the aristocrats, obsessed with inheritance, and family lines and gradually trickled down to the rest of the society. By the 17th century, most people now had two names: a first name (prename, Christian name, etc.) and a last name (surname, family name, etc.).

There are four main types of surnames, most based on an original byname: descriptive, place names, occupational, and patronymics (or matronymics)

Descriptive Surnames:
Descriptive surnames usually began with a descriptive byname of a specific individual. These are names like White (complexion), Brown (hair), Armstrong, Small (of stature), Young, Wallace (welsh), Scott (scotch).

Place Names
Place names described where a person lived: John at the Hill, Tom by the Brook, Walter of the Stone Meadow. If the family stayed in the same place long enough, their descendants might well have been known as John Hill, Tom Brooks, or Walter Stanley.

These names described what a person did: John the Butcher, Alexander the Steward, or Mary the Brewster. These are names like Miller, Taylor, Smith, Clark, Wright, Baker, Carter, Turner, Parker, Cook, Cooper, etc.

Patronymics derived a surname from one’s father’s first name (if it comes from the mother’s name, like Maud and Madison, it is called a matronymic). Sometimes the name is left alone, as in the surnames: Thomas, Morris, or Martin. Sometimes an “s” or a “son” is tacked on, as in Thompson (Tom’s son), Johnson (John’s son), Jones (Jon’s son), Davis (Dav(id)’s son), Robinson, Roberts, Willis, Collins, Henderson, etc.

The Scottish Gaels say “mac” instead of “son” giving us names like Mackenzie (son of Kenneth) and Macdonald, (son of Donald). Irish families use a “mc” or an “o’” for McDonald (son of Donald), O’Donnel (son of Donald). Spanish uses an “ez” suffix for names like Rodriguez (Rodrigo), Martinez (Martin), Sanchez (Sancho).


The 17th century, in Scotland, a new custom arose: the practice of giving surnames for first names, usually only among those belonging to the Protestant faith. The pressure to name one’s children only after saints was gone, and parents were free to experiment with “new” names.

The practice of giving surnames for first names often began when boys (often firstborns) were given their mother’s maiden name, either as a first or as a middle name, in order to honor the mother’s family. When John Fox married Mary Kyle, their son might be named John Kyle Fox, for example. Often, to distinguish one John from another, he would be called Kyle Fox, and so on.

Giving a child a surname-for-a-first-name was originally a practice of the aristocrats, the people most concerned with family ties and legacies. For generations, these kinds of names only existed in families connected with the original surnames (Percy Bysse Shelley was a cousin of the Percy family, for example).

Gradually, the practice would spread. Indeed, 19th-century American upper classes took to it so readily that

filtered down through the middle classes to the lower classes. And the idea of surnames-for-first-names passed from relative’s surnames to anyone’s surnames.

Other times, children would receive the surname of of popular hero. Many American children, for example, were christened after Revolutionary War figures (Washington, Jefferson, Warren, Elmer). Later, many Southern children were called Lee, after Robert E. Lee. British military heroes, like Nelson, were similarly honored. Religious parents began giving reformers’ last names to their children, such as Luther, Calvin, and Wesley.

Traditionally, this practice was usually (though not always) limited to sons. In the 20th century, however, many girl children were bestowed with surnames as well.

Currently popular for boys are English Occupational surnames such as Tyler, Hunter, Tanner, Spencer, Carter, Parker, Cooper, Chandler, Tucker, Walker, Sawyer, Porter, Turner, Dexter.

For girls, parents seem to prefer English Place Names, especially those that end with the “ley” (meaning “meadow”). These names include: Ashley, Hailey, Bailey, Riley, Kimberly, Kayley, Harley, Ainsley, Leslie/Lesley, Hadley.

Irish surnames like Kelly, Shannon, Delaney, Dillon, Cassidy, Ryan, Casey, are common for both sexes.

Patronymics are also found for both sexes: Jackson, Carson, Dawson, Harrison, Bryson, Grayson/Greyson, Tyson, Nelson, Wilson, Hudson, Addison, Jamison/Jameson, Garrison, Anderson, Jefferson, Emerson, Bronson, Lawson for boys and Madison, Mackenzie, Allison/Alison, Addison, and Carson for girls.

This is a table of the most popular surnames-for-first-names in the United States from 1850 to 2000.
  1850 1900 1950 2000
1 Allen (49th) Earl (27th) Gary (12th) Tyler (10th)
2 Nelson Howard Bruce Ryan
3 Willis Lawrence Scott Brandon
4 Wesley Elmer Lawrence Austin
5 Calvin Stanley Keith Cameron
6 Franklin Russell Wayne Hunter
7 Taylor Lester Dale Jordan
8 Milton Clifford Craig Kyle
9 Morris Chester Randall Cody
10 Washington Milton Roy Bryan
11 Anderson Everett Russell Mason
12 Jackson Morris Glenn Cole
13 Lee Leslie Stanley Jackson
14 Green Glenn Rodney Garrett
15 Wilson Luther Barry Chase
16 Warren Vernon Allen Blake
17 Lawrence Irving Howard Lucas
18 Perry Gordon Curtis Dalton
19 Harrison Wilbur Darrell Tanner
20 Scott (121st) Willard (128th) Dean (107th) Spencer (98th)

Notice that in 1850 and even in the year 1900, the most popular surnames-as-first-names were those belonging to American heros and/or presidents like Frankling, Taylor, Morris, Washington, Jackson, Elmer, Green, Warren, Perry, and Harrison; other were the names of religious leaders like Wesley, Luther, and Calvin; or famous authors like Milton, Russell, Irving, and Scott. A few, like Nelson or Stanley, were even British heros.

Few girls were given surnames-for-first-names until the early 20th century. By the end of the 20th century, however, they had become quite common. Though most of these names, it can be seen, end in the “lee” or “see” sound.





Shirley (32nd)

Madison (3rd)
























































Shelby (503rd)

Kelly (113th)

The following is a list of surnames often considered as first names, and hosted by Edgar’s Name Pages:

English Surnames
Surnames of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, or Middle English origin.

English - Patronymics

Allen - Alan
Austin - Augustine
Avery - Auvere/Alfred
Bryant - Brian
Elmer - Aymer
Emmett - Emma
Everett - Everard
Garrett - Gerard
Gary - Gerard
Jackson - Jack’s Son
Larkin, Lark - Laurence
Lamont - Lagman, Logmar
Lawrence - Laurence
Madison - Maud’s Son
Merle - Muriel
Merrill - Muriel
Mitchell - Michael
Morris - Maurice
Nelson - Neil’s Son
Otis - Otto’s Son
Pierce - Piers, Peter
Stacy/Stacey - Eustace
Willard - Wilheard
Willis - Will’s Son
Wilson - Will’s Son
Wyatt - Guy/Wy

English - Place Names
Ainsley - “lone meadow”
Alton - “old town” or “Ella’s town”
Ashley - “ash tree field”
Bailey - “berry field”
Barrington - “Beorn’s town”
Bentley - “bent meadow”
Beverly - “beaver stream”
Bradford - “broad ford”
Bradley - “broad meadow”
Brady - “broad island”
Brent - “hill”
Brock - “badger,” or “sign of the badger”
Brooke - “brook, stream”
Byron - “cow shed”
Camden - “enclosed valley”
Carlton - “Charles town”
Chester - “fort”
Clay - “clay”
Clayton - “clay town”
Clifford - “ford by the cliffs”
Clifton - “town by the cliffs”
Clinton - “hill town”
Clive - “cliff”
Colton - “coal town” “dark town”
Dale - “valley”
Dalton - “valley town”
Dana - “valley”
Darby - “deer settlement”
Denzil - “Denzall, Cornwall”
Digby - “ditch town”
Drake - “by the sign of the drake”
Dudley - “Dudda’s field”
Easton - “east town”
Forrest - “forrest, woods”
Glanville - “forest town” or “clean town”
Grover - “grove of trees”
Hailey/Haley - “hay field”
Hartley - “deer meadow”
Heath - “open, wild area”
Holden - “deep valley”
Kelsey - “ship island” or “victory island”
Kendall - “spring valley” or “Kent’s valley”
Kent - “border”
Kenton - “Kent’s town” or “bold town” or “king’s town”
Kimberly - “king’s town’s meadow”
Landon - “enclosed hill”
Lee - “meadow”
Lester - “Ligora’s fort”
Milton - “mill town”
Nash - “at the ash tree”
Norris - “north”
Odell - “hill of woad”
Perry - “pear tree”
Peyton - “Paega’s town”
Preston - “priest’s town”
Rodney - “Hroda’s island” or “reed island”
Royston - “royal town”
Shelby - “willow farm” or “hut shelter”
Sheldon - “deep valley” or “ledge farm”
Shirley - “bright clearing”
Stanley - “stone field”
Stanton - “stone town”
Vance/Van - “swamp”
Wade - “ford”
Wesley - “west field”
Whitney - “white island”
Winston - “friend stone”
Woodrow - “row houses by a woods”

English/Norse - Place Names
Roscoe - “deer wood”

Norman English - Place Names
Barrie - “barrier”
Barry - “barrier”
Colby - “dark settlement”
Courtney, Courtenay - “Curtis’s estate”
Darcy - “of Arcy, France”
Darrell/Darryl - “of Airrelle, France”
Lacey - “of Lassy, France”
Lance - “land”
Lane - “by the lane”
Leland - “fallow land”
Montague - “pointed mountain”
Mortimer - “still water”
Morton - “moor town”
Neville - “new town”
Percy - “Persius’s estate”
Sacheverell - “Dear Leap”
Troy - “Troyes, France” from the Gaulish tribe Tricassii
Vernon - “place of alders”
Warren - “the game park”

English - Descriptive
Blake - “pale” or “dark”
Brady - “broad eyes”
Brett - “from Brittany”
Cade - “round”
Chance - “lucky”
Cole - “dark”
Curtis - “courteous”
Dana - “Danish”
Drew - “skillfull”
Franklin - “free man”
Scott - “Scottish”
Tate - “cheerful”
Todd - “fox”
Truman - “true man”
Wendell - “Wend”
Wynne - “friend”

English/Norman - Occupational
Bailey - “bailiff”
Baron - “works for the baron”
Booker - “seller or maker of books”
Brewster - “one who brews ale”
Carter - “one who pushes a cart”
Chandler - “candle maker”
Chauncey - “chancellor”
Chase - “hunter”
Clark - “clerk”
Cooper - “barrel maker”
Cody - “cushion maker”
Cordell - “cord maker”
Corey/Cory - “cord maker”
Dexter - “one who dyes cloth”
Earl - “works for the earl”
Garnet - “protector”
Hunter - “hunter”
Jagger - “teamster”
Marshall - “horse servant”
Mason - “stoneworker”
Millard - “one who guards/runs the mill”
Page/Paige - “knight’s apprentice”
Parker - “keeper of the park”
Sherman - “one who sheers sheep”
Tanner - “one who tans hides”
Taylor - “one who sews”
Tucker - “one who attaches cloth”
Tyler - “one who tiles roofs”
Travis - “toll collector”
Spencer - “one who dispenses medicine”
Walker - “one who thickens cloth”
Wayne - “wagon maker”

Scottish-English Surnames
Surnames of Scots (a dialect of English), and Norman-Scots origin.

Scottish-Norman - Place Names
Bruce - “forrest”
Graham - “gravel home”
Lyle - “the island”

Scottish-Norman - Descriptive
Grant - “tall”
Ross - “redhead”
Wallace - “Welsh”

Scottish English - Occupational
Stuart - “steward”

Scottish English/Norse - Place Name
Dallas - possibly “resting place”
Gordon - “great hill” or “great fort”
Kirk - “church” (norse)
Lindsay/Lindsey - “Lincoln’s wetlands”
Maxwell - “Mack’s well” or “Magnus’s well”
Ramsay - “garlic island”
Rutherford - “red ford” or “Ruther’s ford” or “ox ford”

Scottish Gaelic Surnames
Surnames of Scottish Gaelic (a cousin of Irish Gaelic) origin.

Scottish Gaelic - Place Names
Blair - “plain,” or “meadow”
Douglas - “dark river”
Keith - “battle ground” or “woods”
Kyle - “narrow channel”
Ross - “promontory”
Sterling - “struggling rivers”

Scottish Gaelic - Descriptive
Boyd - “blond” or “from Bute”
Cameron - “crooked nose”
Cambell - “crooked mouth”

Scottish Gaelic - Patronymics
Doyle - Son of Dougal
Mackenzie - Son of Kenneth
Mckinley - Son of Finlay

Scottish General Place names
Leslie/Lesley - “holly garden?”
Logan - “hollow”

Irish Gaelic Surnames
Surnames of Irish Gaelic, and Anglicized Irish Gaelic origin.

Irish (Anglicized) - Descriptive
Barry - “spear”
Cody - “helpful”
Darcy - “dark one”
Desmond - “from south Munster”
Grady - “noble”
Kelley - “slender” or “visitor of churches”
Kelly - “slender” or “visitor of churches”
Kennedy - “ugly head”
Sullivan - “dark eyes”

Irish (Anglicized) - Patronymics
Barrington - “Descendent of Bearan”
Barry - “Descendent of Fionnbharr”
Brady - “Descendent of Brághadach”
Carroll - “Descendent of Cearbhall”
Casey - “Descendent of Cathasach”
Cassidy - “Descendent of Casidhe”
Cody - “Descendent of Oda”
Corey/Cory - “Descendent of Camhradhe”
Donovan - “Descendent of Donndubhan”
Fallon - “Descendent of Fallamhan”
Hogan - “Descendent of Ógán”
Keegan - “Descendent of Aodhagan”
Quinn - “Descendent of Conn”
Sheridan - “Descendent of Siridean”

Irish (Anglicized) - Place Names
Corey/Cory - “round hill” or “ravine”
Delaney - “dark river”

Welsh Surnames
Surnames of Welsh origin.

Welsh - Patronymics
Perry - Son of Harry

Welsh - Place Names
Craig - “crag”
Kendall - “high statue”
Trevor - “big village”

Welsh - Descriptive
Meredith - “lord”
Vaughan - “little”
Wynne - “white”

French Surnames
Surnames of French origin.

Calvin - “little bald one”
Chanel - “channel”
Chantal - “stony place”
Lamar - “the pond”
Macy - “son of Thomas” or “Son of Matthew”

Dutch Surnames
Surnames of Dutch origin

Dewitt - “white”
Roosevelt - “rose field”
Schuyler/Skylar - “shelter”
Van - “of”

Danish Surnames
Surnames of Dutch origin
Zane - possibly “son of Jehan (John)”

Italian Surnames
Surnames of Italian origin
Armani - from Herman

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