Baby Naming Issue: The Protocol of Using a Namesake Name

Traci writes:

My question doesn’t deal with specific names, but I’m hoping you and your readers will want to tackle it anyway. Both of the names we have picked out are names with great meaning to my husband and I. Recently, I’ve started having nervous second thoughts, not about the names themselves, but about family ramifications and protocol.

The details:
For a girl, we are planning to name her after our mothers (my mother’s for a first name, his mother for a middle name.) My mother is still living, his has passed away. The names sound beautiful together, and we love them. My mother is very easygoing and I am 99.9% confident that she will be honored if we name our child after her. Still, are we obligated to inform her beforehand? (We’d like for it to be a surprise. Is this a bad idea?)

For a boy, we would like to name him after my grandfather who has passed away. I had a special bond with this grandfather , and this is well known in our family. After he passed away, he left some personal family treasures to me, which caused some hurt feelings from other family members, particularly his daughters, (my aunts) I’m wondering naming a child after him might cause hurt feelings in the family, or be perceived as snobbish in some way. Similarly, should I talk to them about it before naming this child?

Finally, are there any other points of etiquette with regard to naming a child after a family member (living or dead)? We would appreciate any or all advice as we are considering family names very strongly…

Thank you so much.

I would like to be able to wave these concerns away with a pfff sound: to say, “Don’t be ridiculous, of COURSE your mother will be honored! And your aunts might even feel somewhat mollified about the inheritance issues when they see further evidence of how much you loved their dad.” And I do think that’s the advice most likely to be true. But I am a writer on the internet, so I’ve been made painfully aware time and time again that if there is a situation in question, there will be not just one or two people but a whole GROUP of people offended and angry about it.

This is due not to The Evil of the Internet, but rather to the way the Internet lets us so easily collect data from an enormous pool—without being able to compare the size of the sample to the size of the pool we took it from. If we get twenty comments on this post and ten of them say “I would BOIL WITH RAGE if someone used my name without asking me first!!,” we don’t know if that’s ten people out of twenty or if it’s ten people out of seven billion. This makes it impossible to confidently say to you, “No, keep it a wonderful, wonderful surprise for your mother, OMG she will be so happy, this is so much fun, be sure to let us know if she CRIED WITH JOY!!”: I have to keep in mind the few people who would be offended and furious by something that is widely considered a very touching honor.

Sigh. The world can be a hard place to live.

Well. Here is what I will say instead: If you think your mom is 99.9% likely to be pleased, I would go with that. And yes: surprise her. I think that after this many years, if she were the sort to be upset/unhappy at having a baby namesake, you would know. She would have said things in other contexts (birth announcements, friends’ children, any discussion involving namesakes or how she chose your name) that would have given you a feeling for it over time.

And in the case of your grandfather’s name, I will say the same: Use it. If you knew for a fact that using his name would injure your aunts’ feelings, I would then advise you to gently prepare them for the idea that you were likely to do so, to cushion the news—and yet I would still say you should use the name. Your intentions and motivations are GOOD: you’re not naming a child to rub anything in their faces, and if you WERE trying to rub their faces in anything, “naming a baby” would be a pretty silly way to do it. Furthermore, since your grandfather has already died, they can’t even grouse that this is a way to kiss up; and since they’re presumably done having/naming children, they can’t grouse that you’re stealing a name they wanted to use. (It is making me tired, thinking of all these ways people could misunderstand each other. *world-weary sigh*)

You asked about other points of namesake etiquette, and aside from various cultural/family/religious traditions (which people generally already know, if those traditions apply to them) the main thing I keep in mind when considering family names is whether another family member might feel like they have a bigger claim to the name. For example, if my brother were a Jr., I’d be hesitant to name a child after my dad: seems like my brother should get first dibs. I might discuss such a namesake with my siblings anyway, even if there were no Sr./Jr. issues, just to see what’s what and to avoid unpleasant surprises/misunderstandings.

In most cases, though, I think discussions of dibs and claims tend to be ugly and inappropriate: a certain birth-order grandchild doesn’t have dibs on a grandparent’s name, for example, and two or three or even ALL the grandchildren can ALL use the name without it getting used up. And things get even trickier, because of course a person can call all the dibs they want and be as nasty and hurt-feelingy about it as they can, but if they never have children, or never have a child of that sex, or if the child’s other parent doesn’t agree to the name, those dibs are meaningless—and especially silly if it caused someone else not to use the name.

Whew. In short (TOO LATE), I think it is delightful that you want to use family names, and thrilling to imagine the happy surprises, and I fervently hope that when you announce the names of your children there will be rejoicing throughout the land rather than bitterness and family strife.



Name update! Traci writes:

I wrote awhile back about the protocol for using a namesake name. (You responded here.)
The baby is a boy, and so we named him after my grandfather, Clayton. As you may recall, I was a little nervous that some of the aunts would find the name pretentious or flaunting my special relationship with him, and I’m happy to say that has not happened. Instead, they were quite pleased, and proud! Not only this, but my grandfather’s sister (my great aunt) was so thrilled she was moved to tears! We love Clayton’s name, and are so happy we used it. Thank you to all of the commenters and to Swistle, who encouraged us to follow our hearts. I’ve attached a picture!


13 thoughts on “Baby Naming Issue: The Protocol of Using a Namesake Name

  1. Patricia

    The only possible problem I can see with using your mom’s name as your daughter’s first name is if your mother doesn’t like her name and “wouldn’t wish it on anyone else”. You probably have a good sense of whether or not that is true. If she does like her name, then I’d stick with the lovely surprise.

    And it could be that your mother would like her name more if you selected it for your daughter. My cousin Evelyn didn’t like her name all that much but likes her name so much more after her granddaughter named her daughter Evelyn. It was a doubly happy surprise when the name was announced.

    As for grandpa’s name, I agree with Swistle’s take on that.

    I too think it’s very special to name a child for a dear relative. (My husband and I gave our first son the same name as my father.)

  2. d e v a n

    In the case of your mother – use the names, surprise her. It will be lovely, and if not, she will not be able to remain mad when she is confronted with her adorable, tiny namesake.

    In the case of the aunts – use the grandfather’s name. I think they will either like it or not, but I don’t think you’re under any obligation to tell them beforehand if you don’t want to.

  3. amazedlife

    I don’t think you need to tell your momma in advance – she will be THRILLED to have the baby named after her. Plus, weren’t you named after one of your dad’s students? So the naming-after-someone thing is established in your family. (Did they ever tell that student?) I am with the she will be delighted unless she hates her name crowd.

    As for the boy name, the rancor over the relationship you and your grandpa had has already come and gone, right? If they wanted that name, they should have used it! They had the opportunity a generation ago. Plus, they are your child’s great-aunts, not someone he will see daily.

  4. Barb @ getupandplay

    I was named for my mom’s twin sister (Barbara). My mom told her that she was planning on naming me after her. Then when I was born, she wanted to name me something else (Catherine). My dad told her (I think rightly so) she couldn’t change her mind since she had already told my aunt that I would be her namesake. So there’s my data point for not sharing the name ahead of time, just in case. (FWIW, my mom ended up having another daughter and naming her Catherine, so it all worked out just fine.)

    I think it’s a lovely honor to name a child after someone and I have a hard time imagining hard feelings (although Swistle did bring up some possible scenarios).

  5. Katherine

    I agree that it would be best to surprise her. I had a similar issue that Barb had. When I was pregnant with my first child (gender unknown), my husband and I decided quickly on naming her after my husband’s grandmother, and we let her know ahead of time. I loved the name (Violet), and was certain I would not change my mind. When she was born, and I saw her – I was shocked that she was not a Violet to me at all. I wanted to name her something I had not even previously considered (Charlotte). My husband refused to let me budge since we had already told his grandmother and she would be very hurt (which I understand).

    As far as the grandfather issue – if you and your husband love the name, then use it. Your intentions are good, and it would be special for you and your son to be named after such a loved individual.

  6. Traci

    Thank you SO MUCH, everyone. This has really put my mind at ease… I really hadn’t even considered the possibility that telling would backfire because I may change my mind. Very valid point. I think I have to trust my gut about the mom issue, and as for the aunts? You all are right… they can get over it. :)

    I will definitely report back and I hope that there is rejoicing rather than bitterness.

    Swistle, thank you for this response. Very very helpful. And good point about the “representative samples” How can we know, really?

  7. KE

    I think about naming my daughter after my mother. I, also, could only be 99 percent sure she would be happy about it. I think she’s ok with her name, but there’s something about her personality that would make me hesitant. I am fairly sure there are names that she would like better–She’s just not warm and fuzzy in that way. Still, I doubt she’d be offended.

    Seeing as I haven’t been on a date this century and will probably die alone, this is a non-issue for me. A girl (spinster) can dream…

    Best of luck, Traci!

  8. Shoeaddict

    We named our daughter for one of my grandmothers and one of my husbands. My husband’s family lives a few states away from us so his family wasn’t there for the birth. My grandma was there & when I introduced her to her first great-grandchild, bearing her name, it was wonderful. And the out of state grandma was tickled pink, too. My daughter is 15 months old & sadly, my husband’s grandmother passed away this summer. She was so proud to have a great grandchild with her name. It was a wonderful experience for us. I hope it proves as wonderful for you! Good luck

  9. Susan

    Our daughter named a son after my husband, and it was a total surprise to us. It was so thrilling — I still get tears in my eyes thinking about that moment when we heard the name right after he was born — that I must vote for the surprise (and definitely for using the name, unless you see the baby and have second thoughts, of course!).

  10. Patricia

    What a handsome little boy your Clayton is and what a special story you’ll be telling him about his name. Congratulations!


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