He’s a literary legend, but how would his surname wear on a child today?

Thanks to Kate of My Kids Eat Off Floor for suggesting one she’s considering. Our Baby Name of the Day is Steinbeck.
John Steinbeck scooped up a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize for his writing, much of which is on the required reading list of every American school student. Odds are you didn’t make it out of freshman English without reading Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, or The Grapes of Wrath.

The author was a powerhouse, but his surname is pretty conventional. Modern day Germany is dotted with plenty of places called Steinbach, and a year or two of high school German, will suffice to decode this one – stein for stone, bach for stream. When John’s grandfather came to the US, the family name was actually Grossteinbeck, so make that a big, rocky stream or a stream near big rocks or … you get the idea.

As a side note, Grossteinbeck would have been spelled with an eszett – as intriguing as the umlaut, but far more difficult to incorporate into respellings of baby names. Technically, the eszett is a ligature, the joining of two letters. In this case “ss” becomes a character that looks a little bit like a fancy B. But the family shed their eszett, and really, Grossteinbeck is unthinkable as a given name, so let’s move on.
The question, then, is whether Steinbeck would wear well on a child. In his favor:
  • He’s instantly recognizable as a literary choice, and just like Hawthorne or Hemingway, is both familiar and very rare at once;
  • With occupational names in vogue, Mason has risen to #34 in the US. Steinbeck was sometimes given as a surname to anyone who worked as a mason;
  • The equally literary Beckett stood at #413 for boys in 2009, and the athletic Beckham came in at #848. While the evergreen Rebecca recently left the girls’ Top 100, a position she held from 1940 into 2006. Beck and Bex are starting to sound like the newest boys on the block, friends for Jack and Max.

Still, Steinbeck is unlikely to catch on and, despite fitting a few trends, is definitely one for the unconventional namer only. He’s one of the few names I’ve come across that was actually given to zero newborn babies in 2009. Nancy’s list gives us eye-popping unusual choices like Scottland and Swayze, but Steinbeck is nowhere to be found.

In the middle spot, he’s an unassailable hero choice, a wish that your child will be smart, thoughtful, and accomplished. As a given name, it is truly surprising, but somehow that second syllable makes him feel just on the right side of wearable.

And the real bonus? Unlike some equally literary options – Huxley or Twain, maybe – there is little chance parents will embrace him on sound alone, meaning that Steinbeck will retain his literary cred, while Huxley’s mom is explaining that it’s Huxley, like the writer, not Hurley, not Harley, not Huck.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. Thanks for featuring this name! We found out we’re having our third girl so no Steinbeck for us this time, and I don’t think I would ever have the guts to really use it. For us, the big appeal is a love of the author (and literature in general ) plus a longer name for the nickname Beck that’s NOT Beckett or Beckham. I’ve got a name for baby #3 to join sisters Tempe and Helena but we’re not sharing until she is here in November!

    1. Congrats on daughter #3, Kate. Steinbeck is bold – VERY bold. But hey, I’ve threatened to use Huxley. And Beckham astonishes me. 🙂

    2. Congratulations on a 3rd daughter. I’ll admit to clicking through to your blog and then I started to wonder if you were considering Steinbeck for a girl!

      Beck would be a cute nickname for a boy.

      That’s exciting you have a name picked out. I’ll have to remember to check back in November.

  2. Maybe as a second name…

    If you wanted to honor Steinbeck and wanted something “more interesting” than John, I’d use Ernst, his middle name.

    There’s a reason most German-Americans aren’t using their maiden names for given names, they don’t flow well in English. In fact, I’m really hard-pressed to come up with many German surnames that would work. Maybe Reiter or Adler?

    Charlotte Vera,
    I loved “Travels with Charley”, you should start there…

    1. My maiden is German and we considered it as a possible middle name (in fact, it’s one part of today’s BNOTD)… but it just sounded to me like a second last name too much… probably because it was my surname for so long and doesn’t fit that -son, -ley, -lor ending pattern that many of the surnames adopted into first-name usage follow. But really, I think it wouldn’t have been all that weird had we done it… though I’m glad we went with the name we did use.

      1. I thought of you when I was writing this, JNE. 🙂 A friend of mine used part of her very long German maiden name as a middle for both her kids, and it does sound great. But I’ve always felt like she missed out by being able to choose fewer names!

    2. I’m German-Canadian and there was no way on earth I was using my maiden name anywhere in any of my kids’ names! I, my relations, and most of the German-Canadian girlfriends I’ve had have always been secretly happy to get rid of our clunky, German surnames when we’ve gotten married.

  3. Gee, I can’t past my strong dislike for “The Grapes of Wrath” – I know I am “wrong” to hate on that literature, but, well, I can’t deny it… it’s one of my most disliked/suffered through novels of all time… I’m afraid I can’t really divorce myself from that feeling to think about the name for a baby…

  4. I could see him working especially well with one-syllable surnames, such as Steinbeck Jones or Steinbeck Ford. And I’d be more apt to choose Beck or Steiner as nicknames, not Stein.

  5. I’ve actually yet to read a Steinbeck novel (or novella), despite being a former English major. The reason for my gap in knowledge is that I’m Canadian, and we still put a far heavier emphasis on English literature than American. I have, however, long wanted to pick up one of Steinbeck’s books, but no matter how much I end up enjoying/appreciating them, I highly doubt I’ll ever want to use the author’s surname in the first position; it’s far too heavy and harsh a sound for my ears.