Naming Etiquette: Who Has Dibs on a Family Name?

Dear Swistle,

Hi! I have more of a naming etiquette question. I am currently pregnant with my first child. This will be the first grandchild on my side of the family. We don’t know the sex, so are picking two names to have ready. We are pretty settled on our boy name (and aren’t sharing with the world, much to everyone’s dismay).

The problem lies in the girl name. Me and my sisters all want to name a child after a beloved grandmother. Since I am the first to have a child, do I get first dibs? I have a feeling my one sister will go ahead and name her child the same thing and that kind of bothers me. Does it bother you? Is it strange to have first cousins with the same name? There are two possible nicknames for this name and we both want the same one.

Let’s also mention that neither of my sisters have a boyfriend or are anywhere close to being married, let alone having a child. My husband and I both love this name and want to honor my grandmother, but also don’t want to have to deal with my sister naming her child the same thing, or even worse, the first thing out of her mouth being, but I am naming my little girl that. Decisions, decisions.



I have a very, very, very, very strong opinion on this subject. VERY. Here it is: NO ONE has exclusive dibs on ANY name. NO ONE.

Basic human consideration should show us situations in which people might voluntarily give up their right to use a name. For example, if your best friend has always liked the name Amelia and always talked about using it for her daughter, you might want to voluntarily choose to avoid using it because you know she wouldn’t like you to. Or, some families have naming traditions such as that the first son of the first son is named Robert. If you are not the first son, you may of course still use the name Robert for your child, but may want to voluntarily refrain from doing so because you know it would make the extended family unhappy.

In the situation you describe, you are free to use the name: unless you’re leaving out important information in your letter, there is no reason for you to voluntarily give up the name. BUT! Neither is there any reason for your sisters to voluntarily give up the name. It sounds as if all of you have equal claim to it.

If you choose to use this name for your daughter, you are claiming the privilege of using it first, and I think it would be particularly sweet for it to be the name of the first grandchild. As you’ve already realized, though, using it first doesn’t mean other people can’t still use it. If it bothers you to think of cousins with the same name, you may want to reconsider. BUT! Perhaps it would bother you even more to NOT use the name: imagine if you gave up on using it, and your sisters went ahead and used it. Or imagine if you gave up on using it, and your sisters didn’t use it after all.

I think it’s fine for cousins to have the same name. I even think it has a charm, particularly when it is the name of an adored grandmother: it pays her such an enormous tribute to have several namesakes. In your case, since you are sisters, if you are using your married surnames the girls will automatically have different names. You could also call them by first name and middle name, or first name and middle initial, or first name and surname initial.

If I were you, I would use the name. Even if your sisters use it too, you would still be the first—and it is a beautiful tribute to your grandmother. And it’s possible your sisters won’t want to use it, or will not have children, or will only have boys.

Best not to try to make any rules about who has the most right to use the name: you might have a boy this time, and one of your sisters may unexpectedly take the lead for First Girl. Best to leave your options open, in case you’re the one who later wants to use the same name your sister used.

In the meantime, rehearse what you’ll say if your sister’s first reaction to your baby’s name is a complaint. You could say graciously, “Oh, silly! No one has dibs on a name! You can use it too!” Or you can just say, “I’m so glad you like it!” as you celebrate in your secret heart that you got to use it first.




Name update!

It turns out the baby was a girl, so the question did actually apply. We used my grandmother’s name (the sacred name), Genevieve, for the middle name. So her name is Margaret Genevieve and we call her Greta.

24 thoughts on “Naming Etiquette: Who Has Dibs on a Family Name?

  1. LoriD

    I agree with Swistle’s advice. Consider this: what if you have a girl and don’t use the name, then your sisters have all boys and can’t use the name? Beloved name never gets used, which was not your intention.

    I think it’s okay for cousins to have the same name. I think the second one would want a different nickname (or use the full name), but if not, I don’t think it’s a big deal.

  2. Jess

    Swistle, I agree with you exactly. You pointed out every possible scenario. I would use the name. Cousins having the same name is not the end of the world, and who knows if it will even happen?

  3. Queen of Carrots

    I do think it’s fine to go ahead and use the name, but I would make sure the child’s other name was also a good option to use on its own in case she did wind up with a cousin with the same name and wanted to differentiate.

  4. Fine For Now

    My mother’s first cousin named her daughter my same first name. It is a family name from way back, and her mother loved it so much that they chose it also. One added bonus is that I am about 7 years older than my cousin (which could also happen in this case), and like you said, we have different last names, so it has never been a problem. I say use it!

  5. d e v a n

    I would use the name! Your sisters may not have kids after all, or they might never have a girl, or they might just not want to use the name.
    OR they might, but that’s OK too. If you love it, use it.

  6. ZestyJenny

    Use it! There are also the future hypothetical partners of your sisters to consider. They will presumably have a say in what their daughters are named, and they may not even like the beloved name.

  7. K in the Mirror

    I’ve got two cousins Nathan and Nathaniel and it’s never been an issue that I know of. One is Nate, one is Nathan, and they’re about five years apart so nobody’s ever had a problem. (I don’t know if my aunts ever had issues between them over it though.)

    I will say I considered Nathan for my son and decided THREE was too many cousins though. :) But I could have used it if I’d wanted to, and if my husband liked it.

    Use the name. There are too many variables not to.

  8. Maggie

    I totally agree with Swistle, and zestyjenny pointed out the other thing that I was thinking; what if the partners to be don’t like the name or have some reason that they don’t want to use it on their (hypothetical) future children?

    Also, there are a lot of preferences that change with time – your sister may not want to use the name when the issue is more….time-sensitive.

  9. Swistle

    Sorry, “Catherine,” I had to delete your comment because you revealed personal information about your sister and the name she’s considering.

    I see your point of view, but I disagree with your contention that we’re all “on Elizabeth’s side”: on the contrary, I’d say all of us are on the side of ALL the sisters: ALL of you have equal right to use the name, and none of us so far are supporting the idea of “first come, first serve.” The name you’re all considering is a rising favorite, and I doubt there’d be any of this fighting if your grandmother had been named Edna.

  10. Swistle

    P.S. to “Catherine”: If you’d like to re-post your comment WITHOUT the personal information, I’ll leave it. If I could have edited the comment to leave only the part where you were playing by the rules of anonymity, I would have left the first section there, even though it was attackish.

  11. Catherine

    The personal information was pertinent to the situation. The majority of the response, in which I used pseudonyms, was ridiculous because it didn’t even mention the name in question. Do other posters here ask questions not about the the actual names they are considering but about pseudonyms? Sounds rather counterproductive.

    As to the popularity matter, the other name I know “Elizabeth” is considering is Mildred, to honor a family member from her husband’s side. She is considering using it because our grandmother died a year and a half ago, not because it’s a “rising favorite”. Another one of my favorite names is Agatha. We’re not really ones to follow the trends.

    And yes, it was attackish. I have the right to defend myself since “Elizabeth” left out all the information as to why one of her sisters feels she has a claim on the name. I was simply filling in the blanks. I won’t bother to repost it because I’m pretty sure that readers will just see me as “Elizabeth’s” spoiled, immature little sister, which is fine with me because no one here knows the details of the situation, nor do they really care.

    I thank “Elizabeth” for rubbing in online what she has and her sisters do not (“Let’s also mention that neither of my sisters have a boyfriend or are anywhere close to being married, let alone having a child.”), particularly on a blog she knows her sister “Ann” reads. This made her feel very inadequate.

  12. Anonymous

    You know, my dad’s beloved grandmother’s name (Courtney) was used for five of her great-grandchildren. EACH one of her six grandchildren that had a girl used it in some way. She was a very special woman.

    The funny thing is, none of us realized it was quite so common until a family reunion two years ago. Some of the cousins have it as a middle name, and three of them use in as or part of a first name (Court, A.C., etc.)

    I think it works in part because the cousins are all so different in personality, and also their other names can be used interchangably. Besides which, they’re cousins *not* siblings, and while we get together when we can it doesn’t make for a day-to-day ish.

    Above all it’s a lovely tribute. (Sorry to ramble on; I just hate to see this being an issue, because it’s really one of those things that doesn’t matter as much as you think it might. Except of course to the person that you’re honoring.)

    **name changed, but v. similar in popularity & flexibility

  13. Swistle

    Catherine/Ann (it’s hard to tell which one you are, because you switch back and forth)- I see no reason that Elizabeth’s real name—or the baby name she is considering—has anything to do with her question, or with your comment. The question is “Does anyone get to claim exclusive dibs to a name, either by using it first or by having planned for a long time to use it?” The answer is “no.” The name of the mother is irrelevant. The name in dispute is irrelevant. By using the real names, you left your sister vulnerable. You can be just as angry without compromising other people’s privacy.

    I could add in the things you say are the reasons you have “dibs” (you chose it as your confirmation name; you promised your grandmother you’d use it; you’ve wanted to use the name for a long time; you are so determined to use the name, you would adopt a girl if you didn’t have one and you would refuse to marry anyone who wouldn’t agree to the name/adoption) and I would still come down the way I did: NO ONE has dibs on a name. Your other sister MAY claim the name. So may Elizabeth. So may you. So may everyone else who wants to use it.

  14. Stephanie G

    Ooh. Drrrrama. lol.

    I think that no one has dibs on a name, ESPECIALLY for family names. If you are paying tribute to a beloved family member, then go for it. More than one of you could use that name since it has a story behind it.

    I’m not actually a fan of family members sharing the same first names (unless it is in tribute, as I just said above), but I also think that when you have your baby you should name it whatever names feel right for your nuclear family (before extended family’s feelings are even considered)… and if the same name feels right for two nuclear families in the same extended family then it’s okay.

    You don’t know how close the cousins will be when they get older anyway. Some cousins are extremely close, and some cousins never see each other!

    So, whatever, just use it if it’s totally the right name for you. That’s my humble opinion.

  15. Anonymous

    We struggled with this when naming our baby. My sister and I had always both wanted to use the same girl’s name (in honour of a very special close family friend). We were due three weeks apart, and my husband and I couldn’t decide what to do. We didn’t know what sex our baby was, or my sisters baby, but we didn’t want to use the name only to have my sister use it anyway, if she also had a girl. Turns out we both had girls, mine arrived first. We used a different first name, and the “special” name for the middle name. My sister had a girl a few weeks later, and she used the name as the first name. I was really glad we had gone for the middle name option, it just made things easier between us sisters and also easier on the cousins as they grow up each having their “own” name.
    Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, maybe it’s better not to cause a family feud in “honour” of your grandma. I think the people not actively having babies right now should be gracious and not fight over the name. If they have babies someday, they can still use it. Just my two cents!
    And now I’m dying with curiousity. What is this sacred name?? Swistle, will you tell us when the drama is over??

  16. Swistle

    Anonymous- You just about knocked me flat with the intensely awesome observation that maybe it’s better not to start a family feud “in honor of” the beloved grandmother. That is….really, really good.

  17. Stephanie G

    Great observations, anonymous. I agree, and I think that using the name as a middle name would be a fabulous option as well. I would be more in favour of this practice as someone who doesn’t really like family members having the same first name.

    I’m super curious about the sacred name as well, LOL.

    Oh, and Swistle, I’m confused… is it just for this post that you are keeping things anonymous and with pseudonyms? Or do you change everyone’s emails to use pseudonyms? Did you explain this practice somewhere and I missed it? haha. Could you explain your pseudonym’s rule?

  18. Swistle

    Stephanie- Sure! I use whatever level of anonymity the writer requests. Some people use pseudonyms for their own first names. Some people use their own first names—but they’re bloggers and we know them by other names, which they don’t use here. Some people don’t want to give their actual surnames but they give us a surname equivalent to use: something similar in sound, or they’ll write the pronunciation of the surname without using the actual name (this keeps search engines at bay but gives us something to work with).

    This particular email was an unusual case: because it was an etiquette question and not a “What do you think of this name?” question, the whole thing was left anonymous. The intent was to be discreet about a family issue.

  19. Anonymous

    I just want to say that mentioning the marital status of other family members wasn’t “rubbing it in”–it was just letting us know that there would probably be a gap in between the name’s use if both sister’s used it.

    As for the contention that one would adopt a girl for the sole purpose of using this name–well, that makes me very, very scared for the girl in question and makes me wonder about the maturity of the person who would say that. It should go without saying that children are a HUGE responsibility and to mention the draining process of adoption as a means to winning some silly family fued is offensive.

  20. Catherine

    I wasn’t going to post again because I’ve allowed this silly thing to get to me far too much, but I thought I’d just pop in to tie up any loose ends and make peace for myself.

    First off, I just want to say that if my sister had given birth to a baby girl and used the “sacred name”, I might have been a little perturbed initially, but I would have gotten over it very quickly. I’m not usually one to hold grudges, and I am thrilled that I will be an aunt (and a godmother!), so I’m sure once I held little “Katharine” I would have been happy that Grandma had such a beautiful little namesake. I was, however, a little hurt that she needed the affirmation of strangers in order to use this name and that she posted this on a blog that she had emailed to me only a few weeks prior, and thus knew I looked at. If she had to get such affirmation (and indeed I believe it was simply for affirmation and not that she was really seeking the answer to an etiquette question. Reread the initial post; is there any way someone would have replied “No, your sister has dibs on this name and you should not use it”? . . . of course not!), she must have felt there was something wrong about her using the name. If she was concerned about my reaction I would have preferred she discussed it with me and kept a family matter a family matter. This is the reason I was initially irritated. I honestly don’t care that much about the name itself. My sister and I will resolve this ourselves (I would hardly let it turn into a feud; I love my sister too much, and I love her baby too!), so I thank you for your comments but ask that you let us take it from here.

    To anonymous who posted the last post:
    I was hurt by my sister’s comment about me not being anywhere near marriage or having a child. These are things that are very important to me and I hope that I will be married in the next few years. To me my sister made it sound as if this isn’t possible for me somehow. Who’s to say that I will not be married/ having children in another 2 or 3 years? I have been dating someone for the past year (I suppose Elizabeth conveniently forgot about him), so even if she meant it only to indicate timing matters (although I don’t think timing really matters; cousins are cousins whether they are 2 year apart or 10 years apart), I took umbrage at it. Perhaps this was wrong of me, and I apologize if so.

    Also, I admit I was unclear about the whole “adopting a child to use the name” thing. I would never adopt a child for the sole purpose of using a particular name. I would buy a Cabbage Patch doll I just wanted to name something. I would like to have several children, and perhaps adopt one or 2. What I meant is that if, say, I had 4 or 5 sons, I would look into adopting a daughter (because I would like the experience of raising both a boy and a girl), and thus would have the opportunity to use the name. Likewise I would look into adopting a son if I had several daughters. I’m sorry if I came off as simply desperate to use the name. I’m just trying to say that it is very, very likely that I will use the name, despite all the possible obstacles that other people pointed out. So no need to call social services.

    Swistle, you may call me Catherine, because that is my name and the name under which my gmail account is registered (which is why my post comes up as “Catherine said . . .”). I used “Ann” in an attempt to follow the rules of anonymity, but I have no reason to hide behind a pseudonym. The anonymity doesn’t seem to work anyhow. I would have known my sister wrote the original question no matter what name she posted it as (or else been freaked out by the eerie similarities between our situation and the poster’s!). Just a thought. I suppose it was wrong of me to use her real name when she posted under another name (although I still don’t see why revealing the “sacred name” is a breech of privacy. After all, my sister has no more claim on the name than I do, so I feel like I have the right to reveal the name if I wish), but I’m not really sure from whom she was trying to hide. She was already “discovered”!

    That is all. I’m sorry if I caused anyone strife, but again, I ask that you let my sister and I take it from here. I will not post here anymore, so I will not respond to any further posts.

  21. Kristen

    I know this “debate” is over, but I can easily see this happening with my family. And I totally agree with zestyjenny and maggie: In my case, the “sacred” name was one my husband HATED. Since its his kid too, I guess he gets a say ;)


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