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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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 the extra history behind my name, I’ve only come across the boundary gate tid-bit so it was fun to read the other goodies. I especially like the part about softer and less expected, wow! I can attest to the unisex nature I’m a 27 year old woman and the Merritt hasn’t failed me yet!

  2. Mær is Old English for “famous”, therefore Mærgeat is probably a male compound name with the name of the tribe. Mær is also Old Norse for “daughter, young girl, maiden”, but adding the name of the tribe after that wouldn’t make much sense as a name for a girl. So the Mærgeat origin for Merritt doesn’t work as a female name IMO.


    Plus, virtue names being mostly unisex, I really do see this as a truly unisex name.

  3. I have both Merit and Maret on the Scandinavian limbs of my family tree. I’ve always liked the both names, but I think Merit works better in English. In my mind Merit is female and Merritt is male.

  4. I love this name. It is going on my “List of baby names for if/when I get pregnant but I hope until then my husband doesn’t find it and make fun of me” list.

  5. The only Merritt I’ve ever known is Merritt Wever, whom I went to dance school and camp with, as children. You can look HER up on IMDB – she’s now an Emmy nominated actress. I always thought her name was very cool. Her mom is Georgia, and I always liked that name, too.