Merritt: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on July 11, 2013

Photograph of the Lake Merritt bird sanctuary....

It’s a surname with a virtue name vibe.

Thanks to Amy for suggesting Merritt as our Baby Name of the Day.

Merritt is pretty close to the word merit.  In Latin, meritum means a benefit or value.  Over time, merit came to mean moral worth.  By the 1300s, merit had become a synonym for worthiness, and also a verb.  “His actions merit recognition.”  Schools have given demerits since the nineteenth century.

All of this puts Merit in the company of names like Prosper and Sage.  It is easy imagine parents choosing Merit as a brother for Felicity or Grace.

Except Merit doesn’t have much history as a given name.  Instead, Merritt ranked in the US Top 1000 for boys from 1880 into the 1950s.  While he was never wildly popular, he’s definitely seen some use.

The double ‘r’ – double ‘t’ spelling isn’t a virtue choice, but a surname name.  There are three possible origins:

  • Merritt came from miere – mare and geat – gate, a reference to someone who lived near a boundary gate.  The place name survives as the village of Merriott in Somerset, in southwestern England.
  • It might also come from a personal name.  Mariot, Mariote, and Mariota were all pet forms of Mary and Marie.
  • There are multiple references to an Old Norse name, Maergeat, which could have led to Merritt.  Only trouble is that I can’t find Maergeat mentioned independently of Merritt.  There is a Celtic name Margaðr, usually written as Murchad.  And the Geats were for real – they were a Germanic tribe from modern-day Sweden, and Beowulf is often referred to as a Geat.  And yet, I still have a hard time linking any specific Old Norse name to Merritt – though it isn’t out of the question.

Bearers of the surname include:

  • Civil War General Wesley Merritt.
  • College Football Hall of Fame coach John Merritt, remembered for his achievements at Tennessee State University.
  • Early and influential science fiction writer Abraham Merritt, who wrote as A. Merritt.
  • Physician Samuel Merritt moved from Maine to California, founding two schools of higher education.

Merritt has also remained a place name in the US and Canada, often thanks to those with the surname.

That’s certainly the case with Lake Merritt – pictured above.  The lake is a tidal lagoon, and it has played a key role in the history of Oakland, California, thanks to Dr. Samuel Merritt.  The area has been used as a wildlife sanctuary, with a special emphasis on birds.  The sanctuary was established in 1870 – the very first in the United States.

On a whimsical note, the shores of Lake Merritt are also home to Children’s Fairyland, a theme park for young children and an early influence in the development of Disneyland.

As a surname, you can imagine Merritt on many a fictional character – an athlete, a military man.  As a given name, it feels a little bit softer and less expected.

Maybe that’s why Merritt has been trending unisex in recent years.  Blame it on name theft.  Or consider this:  Maret and Marit have history as short forms of Margaret in Northern Europe, making Merritt a legitimate possibility for a son or a daughter.

There are many positives to this unexpected surname choice.

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