It’s All His Fault! Traditions Behind Your Family’s Weird Names

Posted by wexon on August 18, 2014 in Surname Meanings
Millard Fillmore (public domain photo; Wikimedia Commons)

Millard Fillmore (public domain photo; Wikimedia Commons)

“That’s so unusual – is it a family name?”

Anyone with an out-of-the-ordinary moniker hears this question often. However, a little research may reveal a family tree peppered with even more unusual names and the reasons behind them. Here are some common naming traditions that may help unlock the mystery behind your family’s weird names.

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Like mother, like daughter

One common way to preserve women’s family names in a patrilineal society was to give a daughter the first and maiden names of her mother. Upon the daughter’s marriage, she would retain her maiden name and add the married one, thus ending the confusion of two women with exactly the same name. Except, sometimes that didn’t happen.

A famous example of this is the mother and daughter at the heart of Grey Gardens, the 1975 Maysles brothers documentary, later adapted into a Broadway play and HBO film. Both women were named Edith Bouvier Beale, and since the daughter never married, they were known as “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” to avoid confusion.

Last names as first names

Another way for many mothers to maintain links with their own families after marriage was to give a son their maiden name as a first name. This was especially common in the 18th and 19th centuries, though it remains popular today, particularly if the mother’s maiden name doubles as a common first name.

Photo credit: Laurence Simon / CC BY 2.0

Photo credit: Laurence Simon / CC BY 2.0

One well-known historical example of this is President Millard Fillmore, whose mother was Phoebe Millard. President Fillmore perpetuated the tradition into a third generation, naming his son Millard Powers Fillmore.

A well-known fictional example comes from the pen of Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence. The story’s protagonist, Newland Archer, takes his name from his mother’s family. Other examples include Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet’s love interest in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Darcy’s cousin is Colonel Fitzwilliam, indicating that Darcy has been given his mother’s maiden name as his first name.

When “Junior” isn’t the firstborn

Legacy names are often bestowed on the first male child. However, this is not always the case. Some cultures have the tradition of naming the eldest boy for the grandfather or another elder male relative. This is often true in Irish, Greek, and Eastern European families.

A current example exists in the Rooney family, owners of the Steelers football team. Art Rooney Sr., had four sons. The eldest, former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney, was named for Art senior’s father. It was the second son who was named Art Rooney Jr., and Art has carried the legacy name on with his own son.

Frick family in the 1910 census (Image courtesy

Frick family in the 1910 census (Image courtesy

Sometimes families combined multiple naming traditions, making things all the more confusing. Industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his wife, Adelaide Howard Childs Frick, had two sons. The elder was named Childs, using the convention of carrying over the mother’s maiden name. The younger son, who did not survive to adulthood, was named Henry Clay Frick Jr.

By Melanie Linn Gutowski

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