October 13, 2015

Creative Honor Names: Ten Ways to Honor a Loved One

When my husband’s brother passed away unexpectedly three weeks ago, my choice in baby names was not exactly at the forefront of my mind. Yet with each day that went by, thinking of ways to honor him came quite naturally. I’m six months pregnant, and my husband and I had already chosen a first name that we loved for our little girl. But things had changed in an instant, and it became clear that we wanted to honor her late uncle with our daughter’s name.

Maybe you’re interested in making a similar tribute to a loved one who died too soon, or maybe you simply want to honor your family out of tradition, sentimentality, and respect. There are lots of obstacles and questions that can arise when it comes to using an honor name, particularly if your loved one’s first name isn’t at the top of your list. Here are some of my favorite options for getting creative with an honor name.

For this list, our hypothetical person to honor is named Donald Michael Tucker.
  1. Middle Name Musical Chairs
    Most people think of this one pretty quickly—simply use the first name for your child’s middle name, like Noah Donald. If you're avoiding the first name, use your loved one's middle name for your child either in the first or middle spot, as in Michael Noah or Noah Michael. Some choose to formally give their child a matching first name, but call him by his middle name, i.e. Donald Noah, "Noah."
  2. Surname as a First Name
    Today’s naming trends include a host of surnames in the first name spot, and if the surname is different from yours, this may be a perfect way to honor family or a friend. After all, it’s a time-tested tradition, often used to pass along the mother’s maiden name. In my example, Tucker is much more trendy than Donald. Using a surname may be the answer if the first name isn’t quite your style.
  3. Sound Alikes
    These are names that don’t have the same origin but carry a similar sound as the original. In place of the example name, Donald, Donovan instantly springs to mind, followed by Donnelly. It’s fairly easy to locate sound alikes. Just go through your name book and look at the entries near your loved one’s name. Or, if the name has an interesting ending, you could work from that, choosing a rhyming name like Ronald or Reginald instead of Donald, for example. Looking at the middle part of the name or discarding the first initial can sometimes be interesting, like Conall. Putting a twist on nicknames like Don and Donnie could get you to Dean or Danny.
  4. Variations 
    Another popular way to honor a relative is to look to variations of the name. Some are more obvious than others, and sometimes the variation provides a perfect twist on the name that fits your style. (Other times, not so much.) Male short forms of Donald include Don and Donny/Donnie. International variations can provide a distinctive twist, as in the Irish form Dònal or the Scottish Domnall. You could also look to surnames inspired by the name, such as Donaldson or MacDonald.
  5. Naming Across Genders
    Naming a girl after a male or vice-versa will often provide an instant variation that may fit your style. This is what Vin Diesel did when he and his longtime girlfriend named their daughter Pauline, in honor of Paul Walker. For our example, Donna and Donella are the traditional feminine choices, while Dawn is a homophone of the nickname Don.
  6. Same Initials
    If you happen to favor a name for your child that starts with the same letter as your loved one, this could be a very fitting option. It has even more impact if it’s carried through the middle and (if possible) surname.
  7. Honoring Their Spirit
    Thinking of what your loved one most enjoyed in the world may bring to mind names from nature, sports, places, books, hobbies, and more. If there's one thing they really treasured, there may be a name that creates an obvious connection. If Donald adored hiking in the woods, a name like Forrest or Walker may spring to mind. The key here is to not try too hard. This could be a pretty round-about way to honor someone, depending on the situation, but it's an option that has the potential to carry lots of meaning.
  8. Similar Meanings
    This is probably the most subtle way to honor a loved one that I can think of, but that may be what you prefer. For a name like Donald, which means “world ruler,” you could look to other names that signify a ruler like Eric, Henry, or Walter.
  9. Nicknames as Formal Names
    Some relatives have spunky nicknames that have little or nothing to do with what was printed on their birth certificate. That was the case for Jenna Hager Bush. Upon the birth of her daughter Poppy Louise, she and her husband stated, “Poppy is named after Jenna’s grandfather, George Herbert Walker “Poppy” Bush, a.k.a. Gampy. His nickname growing up was Poppy, and we are proud to name her after a man we so adore. Louise is in honor of our grandmothers’ middle names, Louise and Lewis.” In this case, the baby's great-grandfather happened to have a lovely nickname that worked surprisingly well for a girl.
  10. Vary the Spelling
    Sometimes making the name your own is a matter of putting a twist on the spelling. My example name is not a great one for this option, but most names offer lots more inspiration for a unique spelling (or a more traditional spelling if you're working with a unique one). The sound of the name will still speak volumes, but the spelling may feel more appropriate for your family. 
Choosing to honor someone with your child's name is often a sacrifice that's done out of love and respect. My husband and I wanted to choose an honor name that wasn’t a replica but also wasn’t so distant from my brother-in-law’s name that it barely made sense and would take a lot of explaining. It can be challenging to find that sweet spot, but what matters most is that your loved one is honored in a way that connects with you. My advice is to play around with a few options and don’t pressure yourself to choose the name until you’re comfortable. If you need reassurance that the name is a fitting tribute, talk to a key person in the family before you make the final decision.

If you're naming a baby in the wake of a tragedy, give yourself as much time as possible. Imagine the name on your child years down the road, for them and for you. If names are your thing, you don't have to add to your heartbreak by giving up a name you loved. Play around with the creative options above or go for a meaningful middle name if you've already chosen a first name. If it's helpful, write down every option you're considering and play the naming game to narrow down your choice.

If you’re having a hard time choosing an honor name or finding variations, feminine or masculine forms, similar meanings, etc, feel free to contact me. I wish you the very best in choosing an honor name that feels fitting in every way.

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