One of the most common questions I get? How to honor a loved one when the loved one’s given name isn’t terribly appealing.
You adore your only great aunt, and would love to name your daughter in her honor. Except your great aunt is Beulah, and you cannot imagine a baby named Beulah.
Or your father is Herbert, and while you like the clunky-cool sound, your dad hates his name, has always answered to Hank, and has forbidden you from saddling another generation with a name he considers burdensome.
Or maybe you’ve got great classic names on your family tree. But Elizabeth and William feel a little too flat and ordinary to your ear.
Some will insist that the only way to name a child after a loved one is to use the actual name. Fair enough. And family names aren’t for everyone. But if you like the idea of honoring a loved one, and you’re open to some creative name-storming, there are lots of ways to name your baby after someone – without using actually using their name.
Read on for nine of my favorite ways to reinvent a loved one’s name to make it fresh and new for your child.
Use another form of the honoree’s name
Consider shorter forms and elaborations, translations into other languages, and traditional nicknames. Try looking up the name’s family tree on Behind the Name. (Enter the name. Most pages include a section for related names, and a link to the name’s family tree, before you reach the popularity statistics. Not every name has a tree, but many do.) You might be surprised by some of the possibilities.
Carol or Carl could become Caroline or Charlie. Elizabeth becomes the Italian Elisabetta or the trim, vintage Bess. William is reinvented as Willem.
This might be especially powerful if you can find a heritage choice. If you have Cornish heritage and a grandpa named George, Jory is a thoroughly modern possibility that incorporates both.
Of course, the opposite is true. I thought MacArthur would be a smashing middle name for our son, honoring my Italian grandfather and my Polish husband. Except we’re not Scottish. That bothered me exactly zero, but my husband couldn’t wrap his head around the idea.
So Great Aunt Beulah’s name doesn’t have any variant forms. But how ’bout Beulah’s middle name, maiden name, or surname? Was her maiden name Sloane? Or maybe she chose Rose for her baptismal name. There could be plenty of promising options besides Beulah.
Let’s pause for a minute here and talk about something controversial. If you’re naming a daughter, there’s no reason to avoid family surnames. Girls are just as deserving as boys of carrying on family names. And yet, there are those who will argue that naming a girl Parker or Jameson is stealing from the boys. I disagree, and a growing number of children – boys and girls – answer to names that don’t clearly announce their gender. But it’s worth knowing how others might perceive the name.
Use a nickname
There’s more than one way to think about nicknames.
- You could honor your grandma Elizabeth with a daughter named Eliza, Libby, or Beth – a nickname for her given name, even if it’s one she never used personally.
- Herbert prefers Hank, so why not name your baby Hank? It might be a nickname, but it was his name. You might even use Henry – the formal name traditionally associated with Hank.
- Maybe Beulah’s sisters called her Birdie, which could open up a long list of avian-inspired names. Or Elizabeth was known as Sunny, which suggests Summer or even a bold sun-related name like Soleil.
Use a name that shares sounds
Plenty of unrelated names share sounds. This works really well when it’s the first syllable, like Willow Smith, named for dad Will.
But it’s not limited to first syllables. I can imagine a Lawrence with a granddaughter called Wren. Or a Lauren with a niece by the same name.
Another spin on sharing sounds? If you’re honoring someone known by his or her initials, you might be able to simply repeat the initials in the next generation. Backstreet Boys member A.J. MacLean was born Alexander James. His daughter is Ava Jaymes – a name that clearly nods to dad, both with the middle and the shared initials.
And, of course, some cultures believe that using the same first initial is an appropriate way to link names. Ashton Kutcher explained that Wyatt Isabelle’s middle was a nod to Mila’s grandfather, Yitzhak – Isaac.
Use a name that shares meaning
Some of the most interesting possibilities come from names with a shared meaning.
Arnold means eagle, and there’s a long list of possible names that share that meaning, but have a more contemporary sound.
Margaret could have a great-niece called Daisy or Pearl.
In Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Clara’s daughter is Blanca, and Blanca’s daughter is Alba. All three names relate light or white.
Use a hero name
Is your loved one a lifelong fan of a sports team? A singer?
Joseph is my great-grandfather, but the Joe Lewis Arena is where the Red Wings play – and my Detroit-born husband is a superfan. A child named Joseph would have layers of meaning to his name in our house.
Huxley reminds me of one of my father’s authors, and Nathaniel brings to mind one of his favorite singers, Nat King Cole.
Use a name related to their birth month
Every month has associated gemstones and flowers, many of which make great names, especially for girls – though not exclusively.
Astrological signs can suggest name possibilities, too. If your early August born grandmother was also the picture of a fierce Leo, naming your son Leo or Leopold or Leonidas could be a powerful way to connect their names.
Use a name related to their place of birth or residence
Place names from your family’s past could be a great source of inspiration. What was the street name of their family home? The village where they came from in Europe? The town your mom lived in her whole life?
For Catholic families – or those with Catholic heritage – you might also look into the patron saints associated with some of those places. Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris. Josephine Bakhita is the patron saint of Sudan, Sebastian is the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro.
Use a favorite color, flower, song, or anything that brings them to mind
I can imagine a classic cars enthusiast being delighted with a grandson called Ford. Maybe Beulah’s favorite color was purple and she loved violets. Violet might not have anything to do with Beulah’s name, but it can evoke her memory just as powerfully.
Have you found a creative way to name a child after a loved one? Are there any approaches you would add to this list?