Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp, and Carey Mulligan: What These Stars’ Surnames Really Mean

Last Name Meanings
9 December 2014
by

Sometimes a name just sticks.

I have a 93-year-old friend named Scoop. His parents didn’t actually name him Scoop. In fact, I don’t know what they named him because everybody calls him Scoop. I thought he might have been a newspaper man back in the day, but the real story is he used to slide around on the snow in a big scoop shovel when he was a little kid. So he’s been Scoop for a long, long time.

He certainly could have done worse—a man everybody called “Muck” comes to mind—but the fact is, some of today’s big stars are lugging around nicknames that have been in the family for generations. In fact, they’re old as the family name itself.

Surnames are a fairly recent invention that came about as populations grew and people needed more than just a first name to tell one John or William or Mary from another. Most European surnames come from just a few sources: patronymics based on the father’s name, an occupation, a reference to where a person lived, or, in some cases, some stand-out trait or characteristic a person had. They were small (Little) or had a ruddy complexion hair (Redd) or maybe a prominent nose (Hawk).

Some of today’s stars got their family names this way. You can decide if the name still fits.

Cate Blanchett’s last name is a derivative of blanc, meaning white. It could have once referred to a fair-haired or fair-skinned child, or, according to some sources, perhaps one of Scandinavian stock. (And in the age of the Vikings, that wasn’t always a compliment.) But it seems pretty fitting for Lady Galadriel.

Russell Crowe’s last name is a variant spelling of the word crow, which, of course refers to a noisy, intelligent, black bird, though it’s anybody’s guess how the oldest Crowe came by the nickname. (Maybe he was a member of the Night’s Watch?)

Johnny Depp has joked that his surname means “idiot” in German. It could be translated as “fool” or “dolt” or “twit” as well.  But it also has a history of being a nickname for a joker or comedian. Or how about Natalie “Sleepyhead” Dormer? Dormer comes from the French dormeur, which means “sleeper” and might have been attached to a heavy sleeper or maybe a lazy sluggard.

Maybe Matt Damon wasn’t such as reach for the role of Jason Bourne, when you consider his last name comes from the Greek daman, which means “to kill.” Jack Gleeson’s name, on the other hand, comes from the Gaelic glas, meaning “green,” in the sense of inexperienced, which may fit his character on Game of Thrones, the cruel and juvenile King Joffrey, but Gleeson’s already an old hand on the screen (he’s been acting since age 8).

While Carey Mulligan has made a name for herself—and news—with her cropped hairstyles, she hasn’t gone as far as her original namesake yet: her last name traces its roots back to the Gaelic maol, meaning “bald” or “tonsured.” Chris Pratt, on the other hand, probably descends from someone known as a trickster or for his cunning—maybe even a magician. Or maybe he’s one himself: he transformed himself from Parks and Rec’s loveable and dumpy Andy Dwyer into Star Lord and intergalactic stud Peter Quill for Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s not a bad trick at all.

Want to find out what your own surname means? Try the surname widget at Ancestry—it’s free.