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Designing your own coat of arms – Canting arms

In this entry of the series on designing your own coat of arms, we’ll explore canting arms, i.e. arms that play on the name of the armiger.

One of the most popular ways of coming up with ideas for a new coat of arms, and my favorite, is to come up with canting arms. The word “canting” comes from the word “cantar(e)” in Spanish/Italian that means “to sing”. In other words, the arms are a play or pun on one’s name. Canting arms are also known, in French, as “armes parlantes” or “speaking arms”.

What does this mean to you? Well, it’s simple. Think of your surname or the nickname your family has had. Does it mean anything? Is it a combination of words? Or is it a toponym?

Martyrdom of Andrewimage courtesy of Wikipedia

Let’s take for example my own surname of “Andreou”. As I mention in my post on my arms, my surname is the ancient Greek form of the name “Andrew”. I used the saltire (X like cross) as a cant of my surname as this symbolizes St. Andrew the Apostle.

Every name has a cant. The question is really whether someone wants to use it or not.

Many times it’s not easy to find out what the surname means. This is usually because the name derives either from a non-English language or from some archaic version of the word.

Taking some examples from Boutell’s Heraldry (1983 ed) we find the following examples: the De Lucy shield bearing three pikefish (at the time called “lucies”); the Burdon shield being Gules, three pilgrims staves Argent (a pilgrim’s stave used to be called a “bourdon”);  etc.

Canting arms are not new and are very common in early heraldry and, also according to Boutell’s Heraldry, the arms sometimes were a cant of the armiger’s first name.

Now that canting arms have been explained comes the difficult part. How do you find out what your surname means? It’s not always easy. Not everyone is named “Smith” where they can use, for example, an anvil. Also, it’s not always supposed to be very clear. One of the joys in heraldry is trying to solve the mystery of the arms and figure out how the charges came about.

For example, let’s take a friend of mine named “Karagiannis”. This surname can be split into two:  “karas” and “giannis”. “Karas” means “black” in Turkish and was very commonly given by the Ottomans as a prefix to a Greek’s name. “Giannis” is the Greek form of “John”. In other words, one could translate “Karagiannis” to “Blackjohn”. Taking it a step further, it could be “Blackjack”.  As we all know, the key numbers in the card game of blackjack are 14 and 21. Therefore, a nice cant would be a field of 21 charges. Without knowing the story, the observer would have to wonder how the shield came about.

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Designing your own coat of arms – Ancestral arms or familial symbols

In part 2 of the series on designing your own coat of arms, we’ll examine how one can use any ancestral arms or familial symbols. The assumption, of course, is that those ancestral arms cannot be used, even with some form of differencing.

So, let’s say that family tradition has it that you are a distant relative of some minor European noble that bore arms. The relation is so distant, that there isn’t a cadency mark to denote the relationship. Just to make things interesting, let’s also assume that there isn’t any supporting documentation to prove this relation.

Since there isn’t any proof of descent from this ancient armiger, it would be imprudent to just adopt those arms with a difference. A new coat of arms would be the recommended solution but can draw ideas from the pre-existing arms.

To make the discussion easier, let’s invent a coat of arms that will serve for illustration purposes.


(Note: any resemblance to existing coat of arms belonging to an individual, family or organization is purely coincidental)

The blazon for the invented coat of arms above is: Gules, an oak tree eradicated Or between in base two anchors Argent.

Now, let’s see what we’ve got to work with….

We have the tinctures: Gules (red), Or (gold/yellow) and Argent (silver/white)

We have an oak tree.

We have anchors.

Putting the tinctures aside, one can use the oak tree as the inspiration to use a tree, an acorn, or an oak leaf. The anchors may have us use a nautical or sea theme; perhaps a fish, a sea shell or a boat.

Remember that you don’t need to use all the elements of the base shield but rather use them as an inspiration.

For example, your train of thought could be: Oak trees produce acorns. Acorns are eaten by squirrels. Squirrel fur was used in the middle ages and is represented in heraldry as Vair. Therefore, in the newly devised arms you may want to use Vair.

Of course, the thought process just mentioned may seem far fetched and I’m sure a psychoanalyst may diagnose some kind of disturbing malaise but, it illustrates how one can come up with new ideas.

It should be noted that one should not merely re-interpret an ancient coat of arms. That old shield is to be used as a starting point and elements identifying yourself and your family should be the primary components.

Continuing with the Vair example above, we can create a new shield as depicted below:


The blazon is: Vairy Or and Gules a cog Argent. The cog representing the family’s engineering business (assuming such a business exists).

In a similar fashion, familial symbols (cattle brands, house marks, etc.) can be used. Especially if there is some sort of symbol that a direct ancestor (if not oneself) used. Depending on the symbol, it may used unmodified as a charge on the shield or use a charge that resembles it.

The general rule of thumb with any kind of familial symbol (heraldic or otherwise) is that if you can support a claim to it, you can probably use it as is. If you cannot but want to incorporate it somehow, use an allusion to it.

However, beware of “fantasy” genealogy. For example, just because your surname is “Drake” doesn’t mean you are necessarily related to Sir Francis Drake and can use the Wyvern Gules.

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Designing your own coat of arms – Introduction

In an earlier post, the topic of obtaining a new coat of arms was covered and most attention was given to the various organizations and individuals that can assist with this. In today’s post, we’ll introduce a new series of posts exploring the path of designing one’s own arms which is sometimes the most rewarding approach.

Be forewarned that this will not be a quick process and may take from weeks to years to get “the one”. A coat of arms represents yourself and your descendants for generations and any attempt to get one should not be taken lightly. You may think of this as getting a tattoo that is painful to be removed. A tattoo that it is highly likely your children and their children and so on will also get.

You may have some ideas or you may have none at all, that’s fine. The key is to have an open mind as you will change your mind many times along the way.

Before starting, you’ll need to answer some questions that may help get the creative juices flowing. Some questions I like asking are:

  • Do you know of any of your ancestors that were armigerous although you cannot claim those arms even with differencing?
  • Are there any familial or personal symbols used in the past? (e.g. cattle brand, housemark, etc.)
  • What does your surname mean?
  • What is your ancestry?
  • If you would like to include allusions to your ancestry, what would they be? (e.g. colors, symbols, style, etc)
  • What is your religion/philosophy?
  • If you would like to include allusions to your religion, what would they be? (e.g. colors, symbols, style, etc)
  • What is your genealogy? (either documented or family oral tradition)
  • Military or civil service?
  • Any significant personal/professional/spiritual achievements?
  • What is your profession?
  • Any family or personal nicknames?
  • What are your favorite colors?

The above are just a sample of questions to ask. As a result of those, many more can be asked while others may be skipped. There aren’t any hard and fast rules here, the questions are just to help generate ideas.

Another thing I would recommend is that the prospective armiger start looking at existing coats of arms either by visiting a museum, a library or, my favorite, an online armorial. Some of the online armorials I enjoy are of:

By examining existing coats of arms, the prospective armiger gets an idea of what’s out there, how arms were constructed, details used that may trigger a thought, etc. Not to mention that it’s a quick, though not at all foolproof, way to see if an idea is already “taken”.

In subsequent posts in the series, we’ll go over the questions proposed above and how those can assist in the design of a new coat of arms that will identify you and your family for generations to come!

Next: Ancestral arms or familial symbols