Schools, airports, roads, and hospitals are named for people, and children are named after their relatives. "Namesake" can go either way, but the person referred to as a namesake is usually the younger person who was named after an older person.
When people ask about my name, Mignon, I usually tell the happy story that it’s a family name that comes from my great great grandmother’s favorite flower, the mignonette, which is a tiny white ground cover that smells very sweet.
But there’s a sadder side to the story that I almost never tell, but that seems relevant with all the gun control marches that happened in the U.S. last week; and that story is that I’m named after my mother’s cousin who was accidentally shot and killed when she was a little girl—5 or 6 years old—by her older brother who was playing with a gun. The other Mignon farther back in the family died in childbirth, so people often joke that my parents must have been obsessed with steak, but really it seems that they were more obsessed with death.
But was I named for my mother’s cousin or named after my mother’s cousin?
‘Named For’ or ‘Named After’?
Technically, according to Garner’s Modern English Usage, when a person or thing is named for someone, it’s an honor. For example, roads, schools, libraries, hospitals, and airports are named for people—to honor them—and you would say,
- The annual Agatha Award is named for Agatha Christie and awards prizes to mystery and crime writers.
When a person or thing is named after someone, it can also be an honor, but it doesn’t have to be. So you could say,
- The Pulitzer Prize is named after Joseph Pulitzer, a powerful newspaper publisher who left money from his estate to establish the prize.
And you would say that I’m named after my mother’s cousin because it’s not really an honor, it’s more of a remembrance, and you would also say that I’m named after the flower the mignonette because it’s definitely not an honor for the flower.
There may also be an American English-British English difference here. Lynne Murphy, author of the new book “The Prodigal Tongue,” reports that while both “named for” and “named after” are used in American English, British writers are much more likely to use “named after” than “named for.”
Finally, “namesake” is a related word that can also be confusing. Multiple reference guides say that although it can be used to describe either the younger person who has been named after someone or the older person who was the inspiration for the name, “namesake” is most commonly used to describe the younger person, so I am my mother’s cousin’s namesake.
Examples of ‘Named For’ and ‘Named After’
And when I leave you will finally understand, why storms are named after people. — Caitlyn Siehl, Literary Sexts: A Collection of Short & Sexy Love Poems
Spring Lake post office to be named for town historian — Amanda Dolasinski, Fayetteville Observer.
She believes that if the bridge is named for Noah, that it will be the first one in the country named for a soldier who had PTSD. — Renee Passal, WDIO, ABC Eyewitness News
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”