This may not be an English language question, but I've always wondered. In Sweden, it is very unusual to have surnames that can also be used straight up as first names. In fact, I can think of no such examples. But in English speaking countries, it seems to be rather common. List of examples:

Barry Lyndon – Lyndon Johnson
Dylan Thomas – Thomas
John Adams – Adam
Thomas Jefferson – Jefferson Davis
William Henry Harrison – Harrison Ford
John Tyler – Tyler
Chester A Arthur – Arthur

(Yes, I used a list of US presidents as reference). With the exception of James Madison, whose surname is sometimes used as a female name, I cannot think of many other such surnames which are used as female first names. Is this the case? Is the tradition to use only male names as surnames, or reuse surnames as male first names?

Of course, nowadays, people improvise a lot more, but speaking from a historical perspective.

As a side note, in Sweden we used to have the -- rather curious -- tradition of giving surnames to children based entirely on the father's first name. E.g.:

Johan Davidsson's son was named Nils Johansson
Nils Johansson's son was named Bertil Nilsson
Bertil Nilsson's son was named Karl Bertilsson

(Yes, two 's', as in "Johan's son") Something that surely makes genealogical research difficult. These surnames are used today as well. Either way, it seems to loosely be based on the same principle of using male names as surnames.

  • 3
    It's amusing that all of the people on the left you chose as having surnames that can be first names, also have first names that can be surnames! There are plenty of people surnamed John, Dylan, Williams, Barry and Chester.
    – RoundTower
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 7:58
  • I find Lyndon, Jefferson, Harrison and Tyler all rather odd examples of "surname used as first name", and Thomas and Arthur unremarkable examples of "first name use as surname". "Adams" is a patronymic, just like your Swedish examples (and Thomas probably is as well).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 16:42
  • 1
    Barry Lyndon is an odd case, because "Barry" is not his given name but his original surname. "Barry" was very rare as a personal name before WWI.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 24, 2011 at 16:50
  • 4
    There is absolutely nothing curious, unusual, or surprising about Johan Davidsson's son being named Nils Johansson. It's called a patronymic, and EVERY European language has them. The only thing that varies is how early or late a language (or rather, country) stopped using patronymics literally. (Bureaucracies don't get along with variable surnames, so they tend to require that a family choose one surname and stick to it through the generations.)
    – Marthaª
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 20:19
  • I believe Iceland still uses literal patronymics and matronymics. Their phonebooks are alphabetical by given (first) name.
    – JPmiaou
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 0:54

7 Answers 7


Naming has a large arbitrary and cultural component and so is subject to the same structures as fashion. It seems for many centuries the only choices for Western Europe were Christian saint's names and for men mostly just the apostles.

But fashions change. It seems like in 19th c. Americans, the fashionable source was Old Testament prophets with z's and k's (Ezekiel, Zebulon, Zachariah).

And lately (early 21st c) American girls are named after president's last names (the aforementioned Madison, plus Kennedy, Reagan, Taylor (this is the answer to one of the questions). This is simply a current fashion trend mostly likely to be replaced soon from some new set.

One subtle pattern in English speaking areas for at least the past two centuries is to name a boy using the maiden name of the mother, usually a second or third boy since the first got the full name of the father (with Jr. or III appended).

As trends go, people sometimes follow the external view of the phenomenon (last names for first), which accounts for Jefferson Davis or (much later) Harrison Ford, whose mother's maiden names did not supply their first names. That these first names are the last names of famous people (American presidents) probably helped in their choice.

  • 1
    Very interesting, but my question is if this naming convention is restricted to masculine names only?
    – TLP
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 14:47
  • The particular convention, as an identifiable thing which is not particularly common or current, is as stated: a boy's first name is from the mother's maiden name. It doesn't say anything about girls' names; I haven't heard of such a convention nor do I see one currently. So I'd venture that yes, this is restricted to boys. But as I intimated, conventions change like fashion. All I can say is that I don't expect any girl to ever be called 'Nixon' or 'Van Buren'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 15:29
  • If you could incorporate the gender aspect in your answer, it could be a possible answer to my question. It seems a popular opinion here that surnames that can be used as female names today should be considered, which I do not agree with.
    – TLP
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 17:23
  • @TLP: I'm not sure what to incorporate in addition to what's already there about gender. I don't see what it is you disagree with in the other answers.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 19:25
  • 3
    @Mitch I'd like to take issue with Mitch's paragraph beginning "One subtle pattern in English speaking areas ..." That may be the case in (parts of) the USA, but it is not the case in the UK and some other English speaking countries. I'm not aware of any tendency to use the mother's maiden name, and we certainly do not append Jr., III, or similar to names.
    – TrevorD
    Commented May 12, 2013 at 23:21

If you look at this list of the top 100 girl names in the USA in 2011, I think you will find the following as not entirely uncommon family names:

Madison, Addison, Lily, Avery, Ashley, Brooklyn, Taylor, Alison, Riley, Aubrey, Peyton, Lauren, Sydney, Morgan, Mackenzie, Brooke, Bailey, Payton, Paige.

For girls: total 19/100

Do the same for boys and you get:

Alexander, Mason, Andrew, Logan, James, Benjamin, Ryan, Jackson, Christian, Dylan, Landon, Tyler, Lucas, Issac, Brandon, Jordan, Owen, Carter, Connor, Adrian, Wyatt, Hunter, Cameron, Thomas, Charles, Austin, Henry, Colton, Cooper, Carson, Parker, Blake, Oliver, Cole.

For boys: total, 34/100.

Of course we can argue over the details, but I think this is at least reasonably accurate.

So there are certainly lots of female given names that are used as family names, but, based on this survey, the phenomenon is about half as common. (This is probably understandable given that in our culture, certainly in the past, women tend to give up their family names during marriage.)

  • 1
    The SSA itself, where that site's statistics come from in any case, allows you to view up to the top 1000 names for a birth year. I doubt your results would be much different - if anything, maybe more male names would be surnames - but by not looking at all thousand, you're missing a few exciting surnames-turned-girls'-names like Chanel and Armani ;)
    – aedia λ
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 5:31
  • 1
    "not entirely uncommon", you say, but A) those seem like some pretty rare surnames, B) I see that many of the names can be given to boys as well, which makes them completely invalid in any comparison.
    – TLP
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 13:07
  • 3
    @TLP, oi! Whose surname are you calling rare and obscure? Taylor is the third most common in England. Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 15:46
  • 5
    @TLP Your question was "are all English surnames made first names masculine?" Clearly the answer is no. Looking at the girls' names list I gave again, 75% of them are quite common as family names, especially if you factor in minor spelling variants (Ashleigh for Ashley, Allison for Alison etc.) I have known people with all but three of these family names. The only unisex names I see are Avery, Taylor, Riley, Morgan and Payton. And where I live, these are predominantly female names. Remember also that the source was based on statistical data of names girls are actually called.
    – Fraser Orr
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 15:47
  • 1
    @TLP Why does a unisex name "count" as a male name but not as a female name?
    – user13141
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 18:57

The short answer is no, surnames used as first names are not given exclusively to males. The majority, however, seem to have been used that way until recently. This seems to be in the process of changing now with the increasing flexibility in naming practices.

Examples of established female first names that are also found as common surnames are Grace and Rose (which have been used for centuries), Ruby (which came into popularity during the Victorian era) and Kennedy (which was popularized in recent decades).

  • There seems to be a cultural phenomenon, at least in English-speaking countries and possibly more widely, where girls names are much more varied than boys names (see figures), and there is more innovation in girls names. Which probably accounts for some of this.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 11 at 9:08

Many English and Gaelic surnames, especially place names, have become well-established names for girls: Ashley (1970s), Beverly (1904), Blair (1980s), Cassidy (1980s), Courtney (1970s), Evelyn (1800s), Kimberly (1950s), Lindsay (1970s), Lynn (1940s), Shelby (1935).

Behind the Name lists most of these names as both masculine and feminine. However, it'd be misleading to call them “unisex” names. Only Courtney and Lynn have ever been among the top 250 boys' names in the US. To put that in perspective, Mary was among the top 250 boys' names in the early 20th Century, and I doubt you'd consider that one “unisex.”

In contrast, all of these names except Blair have been among the top 100 girls' names, several in the top 10. Notably, Evelyn has been a common girl's name since the 19th Century, but it has not cracked the boys' top 1,000 since the 1930s.

In some cases (like Beverly and Blair) it appears that a surname became an uncommon but established boys' name, which then transitioned to a popular girls' name. In most cases, however, it looks like the name simply never became well-established until parents started giving it to girls. And in a few cases (like Cassidy and Kimberly), the name took off with girls first, never really taking hold among boys.

No, surnames aren't strictly for boys' given names, and they haven't been since at least the 1950s.

  • To put it another way, there may have been a time when surnames and place names were generally considered more appropriate for boys – but that was before the Baby Boom. Commented May 12, 2013 at 11:32
  • When you say Mary was in the top 250 for boy's names, wasn't that as a middle name? It's still common in Holland, and probably in Germany too (possibly in Scandinavia too). Commented May 12, 2013 at 21:58
  • @Cerberus Yes, it looks like that's the case. The BTN and SSA data must not distinguish between first and middle names, which is unfortunate, as the two have different “rules” of acceptability. I mention Mary mainly to caution that you need to be careful about interpreting historical name records: Once you get out of the top 100–200 boys' names, there's no guarantee that you're actually talking about a masculine name anymore. Pearl is another good example, e.g., Pearl Zane Grey. Commented May 12, 2013 at 22:52
  • This applies to modern names too. In Holland, short names are all the rage, for boys and girls. Boys are all called Fin and Sem and whatnot, which have no history or connotation at all: just random monosyllables. A girl was named Eh last year...luckily, she was unique. Commented May 13, 2013 at 4:40
  • @Cerberus Yes, baby naming is a matter of fashion! And just like clothing fashions, gender preferences can change radically. Commented May 13, 2013 at 5:12

If I'm understanding your question correctly, then the short answer is "no."

The use of surnames as given names appears to be a uniquely English phenomenon (although I would love to see data showing otherwise), and the beginnings can be dated to just after the Reformation. Early examples include Lord Guildford Dudley (1535-54) and Sir Warham St. Leger (1525-97); both of these are the mother's maiden surname used as a given name. While many of the early examples are men, the practice was by no means restricted by gender; there was an Essex, daughter of Lord Paget, who died in 1639 (her grandfather was an Earl of Essex), and in the 18th century, Johnson had a friend named Miss Hill Boothby. Another example, surprising to modern ears: in a treatise on names (among other topics) published in 1605, Douglas is classified as a feminine name (page 79).

Just about any surname can be used as a given name in English, although the ones with the longest history of such transferred use are placenames or other surnames typical of the English upper crust. The tradesman names (Taylor, Mason, Carter) are relatively recent additions to the given name pool, and the explosion in popularity of the whole category is even more recent.

Patronymics (surnames based on the father's given name) and matronymics (based on the mother's given name) are a different kettle of fish: in these, the transfer goes the other direction, from given name to literal byname and then to inherited surname. In English (and in the Scandinavian languages), marked patronymics or matronymics like Adams and Madison are more common, but unmarked ones like Thomas and Emmett also occur.

English society is patrilineal, so English surnames -- if they have an associated gender -- are predominantly masculine, but there are examples of feminine surnames:

  • Emmett originates as a diminutive of Emma, so it's the There And Back Again story of English naming -- from feminine name to matronymic to masculine surname-as-given-name.
  • The -ster names like Baxter and Webster come from Old English feminine occupational terms. (The corresponding masculine names are Baker and Webber/Weaver.)
  • Madison is most often a variant of Mathieson, that is, Matthew's son, but it can also originate from the feminine name Maud.

And finally, the transferred surname category of given names has a history of gender change. For example, many -ly placenames (Shirley, Beverly, Kimberly, Ashley) were, a century or two ago, predominantly masculine, but are now nearly unheard-of in that role. The change is, as a rule, male-to-female only (with Douglas as a prominent counterexample), but that's true of all names.

"Too long, didn't read" summary: Many surnames-made-first-names are perceived as feminine when used as given names (Shirley etc.), and many clearly-masculine surnames (Addison etc.) are popular given names for girls. This transfer of surnames to given names (of either gender) has been going on for centuries.

  • 1
    The original Shirley is the heroine of a novel by Charlotte Bronte; a wealthy heiress whose parents, knowing they would be unable to have another child, gave her the name they had intended for a boy. It later became established as a girl's name in real life. My impression (British, age 60+) is that this type of name used to be less common in the UK than the USA, but the fashion is spreading here. Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 10:02

Madison (as mentioned) is an interesting case. You can even view the scene in the movie Splash where it happened. The mermaid newly-turned-human has a name not pronouncable by humans, so she must choose a new name. She (and Tom Hanks with her) look up and see the street sign "Madison Avenue". So that becomes her name. And subsequently it became one of the most popular names for baby girls in the US.

  • 3
    This is not an answer to the question; a comment would be more appropriate.
    – user13141
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 13:46
  • @onomatomaniak It is relevant to the case of the Madison name being a recent invention, though. And as such, perhaps not a good example of an exception to the traditional naming practices.
    – TLP
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 16:59
  • I wonder in the list of common girl's names also last names given by Fraser, were any of them already common girl's names 50 years ago? Lily/Lilly, possibly Paige. Any others?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 17:16
  • @GEdgar That is a good point.
    – TLP
    Commented Oct 23, 2011 at 17:34
  • @GEdgar: this is not quite the question you asked, but related: in 1935 (year chosen at random), two transferred surnames were in the top 100 for U.S. girls: Shirley and Beverly. In contrast, the boy top 100 had 18: Howard, Earl, Clarence, Wayne, Leroy, Stanley, Melvin, Dale, Russell, Gordon, Franklin, Douglas, Bruce, Glenn, Lee, Clyde, Clifford, Vernon. For 2012 I count 19 for girls and 26 for boys. Note that I'm not counting names like Lily or Thomas, which transferred the other direction.
    – JPmiaou
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 5:29

I think the difficulty with the question is that it is not definitely the case that a lot of first names, whether for males or females, did derive from surnames. Was "Thomas", for example, a surname before it was a first name, or the other way around?

The only example I can think of (which somebody may have mentioned already) directly relating to your question is "Taylor", which was almost certainly a surname first, but is now a name for females (although I'm pretty sure it was used for males first).

I would also say that, traditionally speaking, it was desirable for girls' names to sound feminine. I would hazard a guess that a lot of traditional English girls' names came from feminine names in other languages - and I mean grammatically feminine. For example, words or names ending with the feminine "-ette" ending in French became names for girls in English - Charlotte, Bernadette, etc. When people started wanting to use surnames for first names, perhaps they simply didn't sound "feminine enough" for girls, although of course this is not a priority nowadays.

By the way, many surnames in English also derived from the "XX's son" tradition, as in Sweden: Jefferson, Harrison, Johnson, Davidson...

  • No, girls have been given not just masculine-sounding, but actually masculine names since the Middle Ages. The traditional priority (still in effect!) is for boy's names to sound clearly masculine, meaning that when a name 'goes girl', parents of boys start avoiding it like the plague. (Taylor is actually a counterexample, as it's still in use for both genders.)
    – JPmiaou
    Commented Mar 31, 2014 at 3:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.