The Art Of Naming Your Child The Southern Way

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The thought of naming a child can be paralyzing for any parent—the gravitas of your choices last a lifetime. Some Southerners, however, see it as an opportunity. Many await the day they get to name a child with glee, rifling through old family albums to see what kinds of names and subsequent nicknames they can use. If you’re interested in learning about how to name a child the Southern way, or why there’s such an emphasis on names in the region, this comprehensive guide will teach you everything you need to know.

Meet the Experts

A Brief History of Names

Kirsten Schofield, who is an etiquette expert and has a Masters of Southern Studies from Ole Miss says that the current naming convention of first, middle, and last wasn’t always the way people were named—it came about as a necessity to keep track of people. “Multiple names became popular in the early 1800s, which is when people started migrating to the United States in large numbers. They were mostly English, French, and German heading to the South, and they needed ways to differentiate themselves from each other in small or insular communities,” Schofield says. As the same names continued to pop up, there needed to be even further distinction—hence nicknames, double names and suffixes.

Schofield says that while some of the naming conventions of the South seem particular to the region, they’re not as pinpointed as we think. However, the way we name our children has changed in the last 20 years or so.

Previously, there was a smaller pool of names to choose from, but parents have gotten more comfortable naming their children interesting and unique names in recent years. However, that’s not exclusively a Southern attitude. “People are naming their kids Bear and Grayleigh and River more than Rebecca or John, but there’s no breakout by region,” she says. “Those names that feel especially Southern, like Mary Campbell, Faulkner, or Bobbie Jo aren’t actually very regional.”  Despite the fact that there’s no hard evidence to prove that Southerners name their children in specific ways, here are a few themes that come up time and time again.

Formal Names

When it comes to Southern birth announcements, you probably have noticed some pretty weighty-sounding names for tiny babies. “Southerners have a more formal culture,” Schofield says, pointing to our love of monograms as Exhibit A. For many, formal names tie in nicely with Southerners' love of tradition. Augusta-based Montie Maners says it’s about remembering the generations of her family that came before her.

Adds Atlanta-based Anna Jones, “We have a sense of family pride with our names and love to tell stories about who they are named after.” When she was pregnant, her grandmother would pull out the family genealogy when she’d visit, suggesting names and nicknames along the family line. “I would get a lot of suggestions from both sides of the family,” she says. “It felt like they were so excited to keep the memories of their family alive through names.”

While giving your child a very formal name can feel uniquely Southern, Schofield says it’s more of a class signifier than anything, and this tactic has been used for centuries. “It shows that you had relatives that were worth pointing out,” she says.

“We have a sense of family pride with our names and love to tell stories about who they are named after,” says Atlanta-based Anna Jones.


Nicknames are part of a longstanding Southern tradition and are at odds with the formality of a Southerner’s given name. Parents often seize the opportunity to take a grand and formal name and make it diminutive or unique. This probably ties back to smaller communities, says Schofield, where people needed to distinguish each other through nicknames. Nicknames can be influenced by a child’s demeanor or abilities (Bear Bryant), or by association with a place (John Farmer), or by some other virtue such as family position (Brother). (I knew a kid growing up who went by Bullet because his birth was exceptionally fast.) Katherine can become Kaki, Margaret becomes Margot, and the list goes on, including more unique middle names as nicknames rather than calling people by their given names.

Maners’ family keeps names going through generations, so to avoid confusion, there are a lot of nicknames as the names get repeated. She is Elizabeth but goes by Montie, which is a nickname for her middle name. Her cousin has the same first and middle name as her but goes by Issie, short for Elizabeth. She has a cousin Gabby who goes by that because her initials are GAB. She has an uncle who goes by Tater—whose father goes by Spud, naturally. (The son goes by Tate.) Real first name? Van Buren. “We reuse a lot of names, but have different variations,” she says. “The nicknames help us understand which generation we are referencing.”

There are regional quirks, too—Schofield uses suffixes as an example. “You might call The Third by the name Trip in most places, but in Louisana, the French influence leans more towards the nickname Trey,” she says.


Like with everything, Southerners make up rules that also get passed down. One contentious naming convention “rule” is the suffix. In some parts of the South, you’ll hear that anything after IV is reserved for royalty. While there’s no actual rule against this, there is a lot of pressure to carry on a family name once you’ve reached as far down as IV.

Jones has a son who is a VI (yes—the sixth!) and says there wasn’t much conversation about it. “I remember thinking that it was very cool there had been a line of men in the family with the same name–why not keep that going?” The name is good and solid in her mind, so there was no need to be the ones to end the line. However, there was a lot of nickname fodder. “We called him one nickname for two weeks and realized we didn’t like it and switched it,” she says.

However, her brother-in-law is an IV, and there was a lot of grief over the name, which is much more unusual than her son’s. By that generation, “they were making up names to go by that had nothing to do with the actual name, so my brother-in-law decided that it made his life harder and it was ridiculous. So they stopped the lineage,” she says.

Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas, says that families should name with suffixes as they see fit, but that using that name requires some thought. “We have to be careful that we use them in the right context under the right circumstances,” she says. “Perhaps for a formal invitation, but not for a reservation at a restaurant.”

Gender Neutral and Family Names

Gender neutral and or family names also might seem Southern, but Schofield says it's more of an East Coast thing. Chances are you know someone whose name is Spencer, Hall, Miller, Smith, or any other name that would have been a last name 20 years or more ago. Now, it’s more commonplace than ever as parents try to find ways to honor their families and make their children stand out.

“We have unusual names that are named after people we love, and it’s a way to honor and remember them,” Maners says. “There’s no better tradition than a family name. Sometimes, it’s all a family has.” 

Double Names

Like many Southern traditions such as smocking, the double name is a naming convention we took from English culture. It was used to make knowing who was who easier. “If you lived in a smaller community, double names were used to create distinction,” Schofield says. Double names can be given to honor the child’s two grandmothers, or two female relatives, or even the mother’s maiden name (Mary Kemp, Mary Millner, Mary Glenn, etc). Schofield says that Mary or Anne or another first name can often soften an honoree’s name if it’s out of style, such as Mary Esther or Anne Iris.

Gottsman herself has a child with a double name. She advises parents to take care when naming their child a double name because there is no guarantee that people will call them correctly. “I had to learn to get over it as people call her by her first name only,” she says.

Putting a Name to it

Perhaps it’s the arrival of the Instagram timeline where everything from a gender reveal to a name reveal is hotly anticipated by friends and family, but names seem to get more smiles (and raise more eyebrows) than ever. It’s important to remember that every parent takes the decision of a baby's name seriously, even if it’s not a name you particularly care for. “The way people name their child indicates the hopes they have for them and the things they value, whether that be uniqueness, tradition, religion, or something else,” says Schofield. Although, Southerners are particularly adept at accepting names immediately, no follow-up question needed. Jones sums up our strange Southern ways best: “In usual Southern fashion I have a Great Aunt Sissy. I don’t even know her real name.”

“In usual Southern fashion I have a Great Aunt Sissy. I don’t even know her real name,” says Jones.

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