Arrant Pedantry

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What Is a Namesake?

I just came across the sentence “George A. Smith became the namesake for St. George, Utah” while editing. A previous editor had changed it to “In 1861 St. George, Utah, became the namesake of George A. Smith.” Slightly awkward wording aside, I preferred the unedited form. Apparently, though, this is an issue of divided usage, with some saying that a namesake is named after someone else, some saying that a namesake is someone after whom someone else is named, some saying that both are correct, and some saying that namesakes simply share the same name without one being named after the other.

But I’d like to get a better idea of which definitions are most common, so I’m putting up this nice little poll. Let me know your feelings on the matter, and feel free to explain your vote in the comments below.

What is a namesake?

  • I am named after my father. I am his namesake. (47%, 42 Votes)
  • I am named after my father. He is my namesake. (40%, 36 Votes)
  • Either answer is fine. (13%, 12 Votes)
  • Other (explain below) (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 90

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10 Responses to What Is a Namesake?

  1. Tricia says:

    Wow, I can’t believe the wrong answer (the first) is leading. I mean, I’ll say the wrong one in conversation because people will know what I was trying to say, but to me namesake means “named for [so and so]’s sake. Though for that sentence I’d go with “named in honor of”. It’s difficult to say why, exactly, but for me namesake has to involve the same name, or people, or something that St. George does not fulfill for me. My baby has the same first name as his grandfather. My daughter says “namesake” is something her generation would only say if pretending to be old. So if you’re looking for where the word is headed, I’d say out.

  2. Imogen says:

    I just voted for the wrong one! (Voted for the first, meant the second.)

  3. Goody says:

    I don’t feel that namesake applies at all when referring to a place named for a person or a person named for a place. It should be person to person, as Tricia says, and preferably along lines of progeny.

    If I were editing that piece, I would have strongly suggested to the author that they change it to something along the lines of “In 1861, St. George, Utah was named for George A. Smith.”

  4. Jonathon says:

    It’s interesting that while there’s a clear lead so far, it’s still only a slim majority. And I think I have the same intuitions about “namesake” being limited to people and preferably to relatives (though that last bit doesn’t seem essential to me). Though I’m not sure what my intuitions are anymore—I’ve been thinking about it so much that I can’t tell what sounds normal anymore.

  5. Woodstock says:

    From two of my own personal dictionaries, Webster’s Unabridged (1989) clearly defines a “namesake” as 1) a person who is named after another, and 2) persons sharing the same name. Webster’s Seventh Collegiate Dictionary (1961) defines “namesake” as ‘one who has the same name as another; esp. one who is named after another. The term appears in at least 30 online dictionaries, and in American Heritage Dictionary (top position entry) of the English Language, “namesake” is defined only as ‘one who is named after another.’ Twelve of the thirty agree with that definition, and all of those are based on Webster’s definitions from older dictionaries. Pedantically, then, the term applies only to people; and the preferred application (generally thought to be the first or primary one in dictionary rules, and once again according to strict definition), would be that the person whose moniker is taken from a previously existing person is the namesake. As with much of the English language however, the term has become bastardized and thus, watered down in meaning, and few people are willing to take the time to research the etymology.

  6. Jonathon says:

    It’s interesting that you would say it’s become bastardized and watered down, because I don’t think that’s happening. The term has gone from a fairly broad meaning originally to a much narrower one in the US. And anyway, the etymology doesn’t tell you what the current meaning is, let alone what the current meaning should be.

  7. Sam says:

    I read namesake as name’s sake, or purpose/reason for the name. I’d say that if a child is named after an ancestor that the ancestor is the reason the name was chosen. On the other hand, if name’s sake is read as something or someone which will benefit the name (or increase the renown of that name), then that would be the child being given the name. But by my reasoning the child would be a namesake, not the namesake.

  8. Jonathon says:

    According to the end of this “After Deadline” post by Philip B. Corbett of the New York Times, “namesake” refers to the receiver of the shared name. I wonder if he realizes how divided opinion apparently is.

  9. boris says:

    I’m completely bewildered here. I thought a namesake specifically referred to someone who happens to have the same name by pure chance as in “he’s not related to me. He’s just my namesake”. Maybe I just think that because there is a word in Russian with this meaning and there are any with the other ones.

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