How can we pick the perfect surname for us?
April 17, 2012 7:12 AM   Subscribe

How can we pick a new surname?

My surname means nothing to me, it's not a family name. The surnames of my biological parents aren't acceptable to me or my children for various reasons.

My children hate their surname because it reminds them of their father and the pleasure he takes in it being a famous criminal surname, so they want to drop it and start afresh. They are old enough and mature enough to understand what that entails.

I too would like to start afresh. The only family surname I would willingly use sounds like a manufactured stage name when combined with our first names.

I am not asking for suggestions for surnames. I am asking for a thought process or a brainstorming method that would guide us to decide, as a family, on a suitable surname.

Anonymous because some family members read Mefi and I don't want their control-freak input into this decision.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (36 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Have everybody write down 2-5 suggestions each onto separate slips of paper and put them all into a bowl. Pass the bowl around and have everybody read the one that they choose. Discuss each chosen one. Either the initial choices or the discussion will help you figure something out.
posted by 200burritos at 7:17 AM on April 17, 2012

My friend went through this a few years ago: She listed all of the maiden names of the women in her family that she could find until she found one she liked. She especially looked at her great-grandmothers since few people knew what those names were unless they put their own effort into it.
posted by TinWhistle at 7:20 AM on April 17, 2012 [17 favorites]

I would start with a list of surnames, real and fictional, of people you admire or people who have special meaning for your family.

I would then eliminate the ones where I felt that there was too strong an association with a single person. (I'd cut Einstien, but could keep Ashe, Ginsburg, or Kennedy.).

If I further wanted to avoid questions about whether this was my "real" name, I might eliminates names with a really strong relationship to an ethnicity you don't share.
posted by mercredi at 7:21 AM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

One possible line of brainstorming: I'd suggest considering first and/or middle names from family members you might feel comfortable using names from, as well. I know someone who has used a family member's given name as part of her surname in a similar situation (not using the name here, but it's along the lines of "Hope" and works well as a surname).
posted by pie ninja at 7:21 AM on April 17, 2012


Investigate the process used for generating successful car model names, pharmaceutical product names and the like.

Research mythological, legendary and even fictional character names that appeal to you, and adopt or adapt one.

Name your family after a historical person you admire greatly.
posted by zadcat at 7:22 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you don't have anyone whose name you want to adopt, there's always the option of just choosing a word in a language you speak that sounds nice and is easy to spell.
posted by zeptoweasel at 7:23 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are there people or things that you and your kids admire or have special meaning? Names of plants, trees, or animals are the historical basis of many surnames, and you could use that as a starting point.
posted by Jon_Evil at 7:24 AM on April 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

At this point, the list of available surnames to you is infinite (minus one, your current).

Anytime you're faced with a decision with infinite options, a good first step is to constrain your choices. Start with arbitrary criteria - for example, only common English/American names of one or two syllables that don't begin with any of the letters of any of your first names.

Think about other relevant characteristics of names - associations with famous people, people you've known, number of letters, no rhyming with profanity, only place names, etc. Assign (again, arbitrary if need be) rules around these criteria. Find names that fit your rules. Eliminate, eliminate, eliminate. Repeat until you've figured out which criteria are and are not important.

Then, drop the rules. Your final selection does NOT need to meet all of your rules. The point is to constrain options at first to really understand your preferences.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:25 AM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sit down and talk with your children about a time or moment when you were happy together. Really discuss this and concentrate on talking about the good things you've done together as a family. When you've decided what your happiest time was, ask yourselves where you were at that moment: that's your surname. You don't have to tell your kids that's what you're going to do, and you don't have to wrangle over whether it sounds great or not. You just concentrate on where you were happy, and then memorialize that forever.
posted by Jehan at 7:27 AM on April 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Not an idea-generating method so much as an idea-filtering method, but you might as well choose one beginning with the letters A to M (although some of the benefits of this may have to do with what your name is when you're a young child, which it sounds like yours aren't).
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:28 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

This excerpt from The Cider House Rules always struck me as a way of coming up with a last name, since so many of them are based on everyday nouns:

"Nurse Angela knew an inexhaustible number of no-nonsense nouns, which she diligently employed as last names-Maple, Fields, Stone, Hill, Knot, Day, Waters (to list a few)-and a slightly less impressive list of first names borrowed from a family history of many dead but cherished pets (Felix, Fuzzy, Smoky, Sam, Snowy, Joe, Curly, Ed and so forth)."
posted by xingcat at 7:31 AM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

The only family surname I would willingly use sounds like a manufactured stage name when combined with our first names.

That, to me, says you aren't looking back far enough. Run down your family tree as far back as it'll go. You're bound to find something usable, particularly on the matrilineal side, but your father's female ancestors' maiden names are also worth looking at. Considering that your parents had two surnames, your grandparents four, your great-grandparents eight, and only a few of those dozen-odd names will be multiples, you'll find yourself with a bunch of options very quickly.
posted by valkyryn at 7:34 AM on April 17, 2012

My brother and I were gifted at birth with the made-up name Fabula because our birth mother suffered from mental illness and wished to create her own family tree with just the three of us on it. I took our adopted family's surname and later my spouse's family name, but my brother chose to use his middle name as his new surname.

So. One option would be to look at everybody's middle name for viable candidates. Another would be to look at your family's closest loved ones and see if you want to create a kind of intentional family with that person or persons by adopting their surname. A third option would be to take the name of a significant place. Or maybe that sounds too much like the "your porn name" meme.

I'm definitely not recommending this, but my kids, when they first heard that I had changed my name (long before my first child was born), campaigned for everyone in the family to take the last name Ramone.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 7:36 AM on April 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

A married couple I knew combined syllables from each of their surnames to make a new name.
posted by exogenous at 7:43 AM on April 17, 2012

I would try to make up a name that sounds normal but does not actually exist, so you're distinctive but not conspicuous. For example you could put together a place-name surname by using random syllables with standard place-name elements (Mefley, Blueton, Bloghampton). Or you could take an existing name and change the vowels and spelling slightly. (Smath, Jynes, Rubertsen).

Google to check it doesn't exist.
posted by Segundus at 7:46 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

For narrowing-down-the-field purposes, how about starting with a list of the surnames of superheroes' secret identities (e.g., Kent, Banner, Parker, Wayne)? It's like the antithesis of a famous criminal name, and they were all "invented" by the authors to be names that fit in well, yet still have some personality. Then I'd go with 200burritos' secret ballot technique and see where it leads. Good luck!
posted by argonauta at 7:49 AM on April 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Thinking out of the box, there's nothing saying that all of you need to choose the same new surname. Yeah, it's convenient, and people will more easily identify you as family if they're all the same, but each of you can go your own way on this. Ultimately, we're all addressed in the way that we choose, by how we introduce ourselves. A name is a very personal thing.

Also, this:

Yet further, simply as food for thought:
posted by Citrus at 8:05 AM on April 17, 2012

Jordan and Jesse of Jordan, Jesse, Go! love naming things, including people. I recall one episode where a couple getting married wanted a new married name, instead of choosing one of theirs to go with. They came up with "Rockit" which I thought was pretty awesome. But I bet if you call or email Max Fun they'd love to have you on the podcast and brainstorm a new name for you. Hey, how about "Brainstorm"?
posted by Rock Steady at 8:08 AM on April 17, 2012

Another thing to consider in this age of Googleability: Do you want to blend into the crowd, or do you want to be the top hit when your name is searched?
posted by HotToddy at 8:10 AM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Many place-names make good surnames. If there's somewhere all of you have good memories of it might be something to consider.
posted by Coobeastie at 8:23 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Many surnames originate from a profession or place. Is there a job in your family that means something to you? Is there a place that's special in some way, for example the place you or a family member was born or grew up in.
posted by Nick Jordan at 8:25 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some friends in a similar situation picked their new name out of the phone book. They already had an initial they liked, so they just went to that section and skimmed until they found a name they found pleasant.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:46 AM on April 17, 2012

I know someone who did this, along with his mother and (I think) his sister. They decided they wanted to be near the start of the alphabet because sometimes that means you get picked first, so then opened the phone book near the front then pointed at random and picked that name. They ended up with a perfectly nice, unassuming surname that they were happy with.
posted by shelleycat at 8:57 AM on April 17, 2012

Do you have favorite writers or filmmakers or actors or musicians or visual artists whose work you all enjoy? As mercredi suggests, you want to eliminate the too-distinctive names (Van Gogh probably wouldn't work so well in the US) but Austen or Morrison, or Wells or Brooks, or Davis or Scott, or Grant or Hepburn, or Wyeth or Cassatt, would all be interesting choices.

And there is something cool about being able to say, in response to "I thought your name was Johnson?" something like, "No. Our new surname is Morrison, and we chose it in honor of Toni Morrison" (or whoever).
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:07 AM on April 17, 2012

Well, I think first you have to decide if you want a name with meaning, or if you just want a simple, unassuming name - kind of like you got a better one by the random circumstances that we usually get our surnames, rather than the one that you're not happy with.

Random name - that would be pretty easy. Use the phone book, use and see if any of the first names work as last names and work phonetically and have a nice rhythm with the first names.

Picking a new last name with some meaning will be tough, involving more than one person. Is there a book you read to the kids when they were younger that you all liked? Can you mine something like that for ideas? Places you share good memories? I remember reading (in a book) about a couple who decided to change their names when they got married; they chose "March" - Jo March from Little Women had been important to the lady while growing up, and they were married in March, and both liked the action of the word.

My ex and I were on a road trip when we came up with the names for our kids - we planned on only one, so we came up with boy and girl names; we started by coming up with some basic rules - we wanted something that had meaning, but wasn't "after" anyone. We wanted something easy to say and to spell, something that wouldn't be super-common. We ended up using variations on place names and middle names, and I still love the names we chose. Don't leave out trying common nouns in other languages, especially if they're in your ancestry or have resonance for you.

What an exciting prospect! Good luck, I hope this is renewing and positive for you :)
posted by lemniskate at 9:12 AM on April 17, 2012

Nthing looking into family first or middle names. Just among my grandparents and great-grandparents -- which is as far back as my knowledge goes -- some first names include Kansas, Grover, Chester, Munroe, and Frazier. Of course, it used to be a relatively common practice in some areas for an eldest son to be given his mother's birth surname as a first name, so what comes around goes around.

If you claim historical allegiance to a particular ethnicity or heritage, it might be fun to explore that direction, particularly if it wouldn't clash too much with y'all's first names. It might be cool to go from something 'generic american' sounding to Schwartz or Murphy or Chang.
posted by Occula at 9:18 AM on April 17, 2012

Sometimes you can get something acceptible by anagraming or trying variants on real family names (from any of the sources you have or those already mentioned), or combining syllables from this one and that one to get something without a real referent but with some personal meaning. That depends a bit on their being a bit of some family history that you'd like to be connected to.

Good luck -- an interesting quest, both in itself and as a quest for "personal rebranding" and a fresh start.
posted by acm at 9:31 AM on April 17, 2012

Look up things you like in different languages. For instance, for me I might see if "rabbit" in some other language sounded like a cool last name. Conill might be a good one for me. Or maybe Kanina. Is there anything that all of you like that you can investigate the different language equivalents?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:08 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know of two techniques for this:

1) Read through a phonebook. Pick one you like.

2) Take the letters of names that are meaningful and mix them up. The friends I know who did this are a couple and used the letters of their (patrilineal) last names, ran it through an anagram generator, and picked a result they liked to use as their married name. You could pick instead the letters from the name you'd choose if it didn't sound like a stage name, or from your parents' or grandparents' names (first, last, or what have you).

And a suggestion: The friend I know whose family did (1) did it back in the '80s, and she ended up with a combination that matches a current porn star. Of course this can happen even if you don't construct your own name, but it's a good idea to google any name combinations you're considering to avoid this. (My friend clearly didn't mind too much, though, because she kept her own last name when she got married).
posted by nat at 10:55 AM on April 17, 2012

One resource for you is to look at how surnames were created by/for various populations when they were first required to have surnames at all, or wanted to make a fresh start as a nation. Or just what they did through history as they moved around in life and called themselves new things. Here are a few things that have been done:

-Place names. At several points in my own family history, my ancestors already had a surname but then took the name of their place of origin. This happened both within Europe (country family moving to the big city takes the name of their village as surname) and at Ellis Island (official gets confused and mixes up village name with surname.) So maybe you could take on the name of a village in your family history as a surname, or the name of a place where you've lived or that you like. You could also take the name of a country or nationality in your history, e.g. German, Ireland, England, etc. Or if you want to represent more than one you could use the name of one in the language of the other, so for German/Spanish it could be Aleman, for Greek/Spanish it could be Greco, for Swedish/Polish it could be Szweda, etc. All of those are surnames I've heard before. In one part of my family history we had a family that originated in Greece and went to Italy, and their surname is the Italian name for residents of the Greek region that they were from.

-Nature names and ornamental names, which you can find in many many languages: Wolf, Hawk, Brook, Lake... all the trees, Birch, Ash... in German you have Baum for tree which all those Baum names come from for the different kinds of trees, like Nussbaum etc., and you have Berg for mountain... Queen Elizabeth's husband changed his German last name Battenberg to the English Mountbatten so you could do something like that if there's a mountain you like. You could name yourself after specific, already named rivers etc.

-Occupational names. Baker, Weaver, Farmer, Smith, Shoemaker etc. And you can find them in lots of different languages too, for Polish I've heard Szewc before, which is shoemaker for them. Le Seuer, Boulanger. I think for probably any established occupation or trade and probably a lot of hobbies too, you could find a currently-used surname in one language or another.

-Patronymics. These are obvious -- Anderson, Andersen, Anders, etc. And you don't have to give yourself a patronymic from your actual father, it can be a man that you admire.
-Matronymics. You see them a lot in Eastern European Jewish families like Rivkin for Rivka, Malkin for Malka, and so on.

I also just want to say, surname changing is so so common throughout history. In American culture we think of surnames as these things that have just been passed down unchanged from father to son for hundreds of years but that's so not true at all for many families. Leaving aside the Spanish half of my family that did naming differently (all children got the mother's surname and the father's surname in that time and place) name changes have been super super common in my own family history. In just the past century of my family history I can think of two major surnames that were changed in one way or the other. Going back further than that, as far as I have found, I do find several changes in each century. I've traced my own surname back 300 years -- it's one of those father-to-son inherited ones - and even that one went through several changes, and at one point was something completely different.
posted by cairdeas at 11:12 AM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

You could just choose a name that gives positive associations: Power, Steel(e), Best, Rich, Winner, Magnus, Free...
posted by iviken at 11:25 AM on April 17, 2012

There is the idea one's name shapes their destiny.
Pick a destiny. Pick name accordingly.
posted by provoliminal at 11:27 AM on April 17, 2012

By the way, this site has some long long lists of different kinds of surnames and their meanings:
posted by cairdeas at 11:43 AM on April 17, 2012

I've been through a similar thought process, but for picking a pen name.

Things to consider:

- Short and easy for other people to spell is probably good
- Sounds like a name
- What ethnicity, social or cultural background do you want to convey?
- Or if "no particular background", what does that really mean in your country / culture / subculture?
- Probably a good idea to avoid names that will make people do a double-take when they meet you, e.g. ethnic groups you have zero connection with; but YMMV
- How common or unusual do you want the name to be?
- Do you care if the domain name is available?
- Ditto ids on social media?
- Do you like to be easily found on Google or prefer to be hard to identify? (How many people share the name will matter either way.)

After that maybe some subjective filters:

- What kind of associations would make you feel good?
- Maybe connections with real or fictional people you feel an affinity with?
- Maybe connections with family, friends, or region of origin?
- Name-like words that have some kind of personal resonance
- What associations will the name have for other people which you might want to avoid?
- For example, will it strike others as pretentious or silly?
- Is it the name of someone that a lot of people don't like?
- Is this something that sounds good right now, but you might come to regret later?
- For example a character from a book you recently read, which you like now, but might change your mind about in the future?

Incidentally the US Census Bureau has a handy list of over 88,000 of the most common surnames in the US, ordered by how common they are. It might provide some inspiration.

That list is from the 1990 census, but you can download similar 2000 data also.

Also incidentally, I'm reading a book by John le Carre, which is a pen name. That one works well and it's interesting to think about why. "John" = down-to-earth, everyman, Anglo-Saxon. "le Carre" = sounds classy, has hints of the English upper-crust and a European connection, but short and simple too. It wouldn't suit everyone, but it's great name for him.

And while we're at it, the main character in the book is a spy and has several cover names. He always goes for English place names - Mr Canterbury, Colonel Manchester, etc.
posted by philipy at 11:47 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a follow on to what cairdeas said, Denmark (and Scandinavia generally) apparently ended up with so many patronymics for surnames because the average person in Denmark didn't have a surname until the 19th century (the nobility started having surnames in the 16th century) and priests suddenly found themselves needing to record surnames for people who didn't have them, so they just went with the closest thing they did have. Similarly, German has had surnames for much longer, but a many don't mean anything, they're words or pairs of words combined into one that sounded okay.

In other words, there's plenty of historical precedent for picking something on the grounds that it sounds nice without it carrying greater meaning.

On a totally different tack, if you want a sample of names that are historically 'plausible' for your family, if any of your ancestors happened to have come through Ellis Island, people tend to get listed in those manifests in geographic clumps because they were travelling together. So if everyone in that town decided to name themselves after trees back in the sands of time and your ancestors had said, "No, we want to be called Chipmunk!" perhaps that might guide you to thinking about tree surnames. Or something.
posted by hoyland at 12:40 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

In order to narrow down a bit, why not try and come up with a first letter for this name, by everyone writing down their initials and trying it with each letter of the alphabet for the new lastname initial. See if there are any initials that anyone particular likes or dislikes, so you can narrow the pool a bit.

When picking first names for my kids, I came up with a ruleset to narrow the choices, which included such things as, not so common he/she will have 3 namesakes in class at school, but not so unusual that people will have difficulty spelling it. Not named after any people I know, or family, or famous people. Obviously your rules will be different, but if you can come up with rules first, it will help you avoid the blank page effect.

I like the suggestion to consider favourite places or influential people, and maybe even use multiple meaningful words to create a sort of portmanteau name.
posted by Joh at 2:25 PM on April 17, 2012

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