A Boy and His Wagon
A Boy and His Wagon, photocredit: born1945 via Flickr

Call out Mason or Jackson, Tyler or Carter on a crowded playground.  Chances are that at least one little boy will turn in your direction.  Surname names are a stylish category, and many choices that would have seemed odd in the 1970s are now downright mainstream.

And no wonder.  In an era when it feels like there’s more pressure to find a distinctive name, but parents fret about whether Hercules is over the top, surname names offer a rich pool of possibilities.  They’re unusual but not outlandish; recognizable without needing to share.

The first part of this series included picks like Crosby and Fletcher, many of which received a warm reception.  But there are plenty more to consider.

Hale – As a surname, he’s linked to an Old English word referring to a nook, or sheltered place.  But Hale makes me think of another Old English word, probably from the Norse, meaning healthy or robust.  Both senses appeal, as does the name’s association with American Revolutionary Nathan Hale.

Hendrix – There’s Jagger, Lennon, Presley, Marley … why not Hendrix?  Besides the associations with the guitar legend, his stylish ends-in-x sound is just right for a modern kid.

Huxley – A literary tie, that great letter x, and the potential for the nickname Huck all make Huxley quite the stylish appellation.

Keaton – They were the Family Ties family, the kith and kin of Alex P.  There’s also the legendary Buster Keaton, and fellow actors Michael and Diane.  At #367 in 2010, Keaton might be more of a popular pick than many new parents realize.

Kipling – He’s a literary name with Anglo-Saxon roots, the kind of choice that reads daring, but in a highly thoughtful way.

Langdon – A variant of the ever-so-popular Landon, the addition of the g gives this name some interest.

Langston – Poet Langston Hughes was born James Mercer Langston Hughes.  If you’re looking for a name from the Harlem Renaissance, he’s an easy one to love.

Linden – A nature name with presidential ties, you might spell it Lyndon to emphasize the White House angle – and minimize the possibility that it will be mistaken for a girl’s name.

Maguire – From a secret society of Irish immigrants to a smash hit 1996 movie, Maguire has lots of associations.  Now that Mac- and Mc- names are almost exclusive to girls, Maguire has a similar sound, but would wear well on a son.

Murphy – There’s something open and friendly about this Irish surname.  Now that Riley is everywhere, Murphy is a contender for parents seeking an Irish heritage choice.

Palmer – He’s as preppy as Carter, and less expected than Archer.  Palmer is a synonym for pilgrim.  Think of when Romeo and Juliet meet, and she tells him “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.”  Twin Peaks told the story of Laura Palmer, and John Travolta played Chili Palmer in the film adaptations of two Elmore Leonard novels.  Palmer is gentle, but still has some serious edge.

Parker – Remember The Hardy Boys?  Not the books, but the 70s television show, starring Shaun Cassidy and that other guy.  The other guy was Parker Stevenson – born Richard Stevenson Parker, Jr. – and now that Shaun is a dad name, maybe Parker is ready for the playground set.  Which reminds me, Hardy might be a possibility, too …

Patton – Funnyman Patton Oswalt was named after the imposed General George S. Patton.  A surname related to the classic Patrick, this makes for an interesting update to the saintly Irish appellation.

Radley – If kids are called Atticus, Scout, and Harper, could this To Kill a Mockingbird name be far behind?  Maybe not.  Boo Radley is a complicated character.  But Radley could have a bright future, an update for the fading Bradley.

Ranger – He ends in -r and has a long a song.  Factor this occupational surname’s rugged outdoorsy vibe, and it is a wonder he’s yet to crack the US Top 1000.  Could it be that this generation of parents still automatically adds Rick to Ranger, conjuring up the National Wildlife Federation’s children’s magazine?

Rafferty Jude Law gave this lively Irish surname to a son in 1996.  Despite plenty of similar names rising over the past few decades, Rafferty remains obscure – and yet perfectly on trend.

Ransom – You either love him as a cowboy-cool choice with an intriguing meaning, or can’t help but think of small, unmarked bills.  On sound alone, Ransom succeeds, but only you can decide how you feel about possible reactions to the meaning.

Russell – He’s been a given name for so long that he barely squeaks on to the list, but he is one of those interesting possibilities.  He’s neither out nor in – he’s just not being considered by most modern parents, though some still use him.  When Rush was featured as Baby Name of the Day, C in DC suggested Rush as a nickname for Russell – an option that makes me like Russell much more.

Shepherd – A gentle name with religious overtones in the key of Palmer.

Sullivan – Katybug suggested this Irish surname.  He’s musical – just add Gilbert – and whimsical, thanks to Monsters Inc.’s Sulley.

Sutton – Another surname along the lines of Patton, perhaps the biggest hang-up is that Sutton seems to subtly trending female, thanks to a separated-at-birth twin on the ABC Family series The Lying Game and Broadway’s equally female Sutton Foster, set to star in a new ABC Family series this summer.

Tate – Short, simple and modern.

Thatcher – He’s a simple working man’s name, but choosing this one could make others suspect you’re a fan of The Iron Lady.  Still, I think his charms outweigh his politics.

Thayer – Not fond of Thatcher, but bored with Tyler and Taylor?  Why not Thayer, a cousin to that last one.

Vale – A poetic way to refer to a valley, Vale’s sharp v sound is promising.  The Colorado ski town takes the name in another direction, and of course, another spelling – Vail.

Walton – Another one of my personal favorites, a refresh for Walter or a nod to the simpler days on Walton’s Mountain.

Watson – He’s Sherlock Holmes’ capable sidekick, a smart name with a certain kick.

Wilder – Undeniably a surname, and with more style than many.  Wylde is a heavy metal stage name, but Wilder conjures up Billy Wilder, Gene Wilder, and Laura Ingalls Wilder – a distinguished trio that keep this name grounded.

Winslow – He’s an American artistic giant, and that -o ending is ever so at home in the 21st century.

Are there surnames that you would consider?  Which names are missing from this list?

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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  1. I would love to see an article for Scandinavian names. There are many great options for boys and girls. Even though neither my husband nor I have Scandinavian heritage, we are always commenting on how great the names are and we have at least one on our short list for boys. Examples include Soren, Torben, Magnus, Lars, Kasper, Bjorn, Christian, Bent (all boys names).

  2. I love SO many of these. Sebastiane does have a point however. I love Irish and Scottish names and it’s partly because I identify as being Irish… but I’m just as much Norwegian and probably British. Still there’s a much higher chance that I would name a son Murphy than, say, Bjostad.

  3. I love Thatcher, but as you pointed put, it really doesn’t work in Britain without being seen as controversial.

  4. I agree with Sebastiane completely. Isn’t this phenomenon also true with first names? It seems that first names originating from northern European countries are much more likely to have variations in nations throughout the world than first names that originate from other regions.

  5. My thing with surnames as first names as that there is something a bit pretentious about them, (I don’t mean to offend, some of them are perfectly nice), but I always find myself asking, why is it always just English/Scottish/Irish surnames being used? I wonder if people are actually using these names because they like them or if its just that they want something ethnically neutral sounding. You never see boys named Horowitz (though, Cohen is catching on) and you never see a little girl named Rozzi or a girl named Kowalski. I think these names would actually be perfectly usable, even though I would never use them myself. Its just curious that it is always the surnames from the British Isles that get used, even if the bearer does not have any heritage stemming from those areas.

    1. That’s an interesting take, Sebastiane, and I know what you mean. Combinations like Carter Kowalski sometimes surprise me. Then again, combinations like Carter Landon sound like law firms to me. “He’s at Carter Landon in the tax group.” And just like a mostly-Irish mom and a slightly-Polish dad might name a daughter Maeve Kowalski, it is tough to guess if Riley Horowitz has some claim to the ethnicity. And I do think that, for most of us, ethnicity is strangely voluntary after a few generations. I tend to identify as Italian, even though that’s only half of my heritage. (So I keep Dante on my list of possible names for #3.) My kids probably think of themselves as mostly Polish, even though they’re only half. The other issue is language. It is impossible to botch Carson, Henley, Drake, Mackenzie but the same can’t always be said for surnames from other languages. It is a tremendously intriguing phenomenon, isn’t it?

      1. Sebastiane, I would say that they were meant to be pretentious — at least originally. Many of the first names we now have that come from surnames (Percy, Neville, Howard) come from British aristocracy, and were used as first names to establish upperclass connections — or pretensions of them at least. British surnames have a history of use as first names in a way that many other countries don’t, so we are less used to seeing Polish, Italian or Spanish surnames used. Most often children had their mother’s maiden name, or another family member’s, but sometimes they were the surnames of notable figures (Nelson, Lincoln, Luther, Jackson etc). American, more so than Britain, really picked up this trend. Withycombe wrote in 1945 “The use of surnames as christian names is now much more common in the USA than in England. It has been calculated that three out of four eldest sons of American families of any pretensions bear their mother’s maiden names either as first or as middle names.”

  6. I like Langdon, Langston, Palmer, Parker, Rafferty, Sullivan, Tate, and Thatcher of those listed. Sutton and Linden seem feminine to me.
    I have an uncle named Russell who was named for his grandfather, Elmer Russell, and the town I grew up in (and subsequently the name of the high school I attended) was Russell. My uncle grew up in the same town, and it always struck me as odd that my grandmother used that name, even if it was in honor of her father.

    1. I wanted to clarify that Elmer Russell was her father’s first and middle names, and not first name and surname.

  7. Thanks for including Sullivan! It was the second choice for our son who ended up named Conrad (which is also a surname, like Joesph Conrad). I got cold feet on the nickname Sully, and I knew that it was too intuitive to avoid. It’s a fabulous name, though, and it’s still on my list for any future boys. I was at the pediatrician’s office last week with a 3-week-old Whitman, which I love, especially nickname Whit! Surnames, especially if they come from the family tree or have special meaning, are facinating.