Anglo-Saxon names, animal names, aristocratic names, Arthurian names, Celtic names, classic names, english names, epithets, European name popularity, famous namesakes, fictional namesakes, Gaelic names, German names, germanic names, Greek names, Irish name popularity, Irish names, Latin names, mythological names, name history, name meaning, name popularity, name trends, names from films, names from television, nicknames, Old English names, Old Norse names, retro names, royal names, royal titles, saints names, Scottish names, Slavic names, Spanish names, UK name trends, US name trends, Welsh names
This post was first published on June 26 2011, and substantially revised and updated on June 25 2015.
Anglo-Saxon name meaning “elf counsel”. The name became famous due to Alfred the Great, 9th century king of Wessex, who defended England against the Vikings, and was the first to call himself King of the Anglo-Saxons. Renowned for his love of learning, he encouraged education and reformed the legal system. Although not officially a saint, he is regarded as a Christian hero, and has a feast day in the Anglican Church. The name Alfred continued to be used even after the Norman Conquest, when many Anglo-Saxon names were discarded. It dwindled after the Middle Ages, but had a revival in the 19th century, and was chosen as the name of one of Queen Victoria’s sons – an earlier Prince Alfred was the son of King George III, and the current British family trace their ancestry back to Alfred the Great. Alfred is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #14 in the 1900s, and #50 by the 1930s. Alfred left the Top 100 in the 1950s, and is currently around the 300s, its position apparently fairly stable. Popular in Scandinavia, Alfie, Fred, and Freddie give this venerable classic several cute nickname options.
Irish name, possibly from the Celtic bre, meaning “hill”, to suggest “high, great, exalted”. In Irish mythology, Brian is one of three brothers who are sent on a worldwide magical quest. In some versions, Brian is the clever one of the three, while his brothers are bumbling and easily pushed around. A famous namesake is Brian Boru, the first High King of Ireland, and founder of the O’Brien dynasty; he made the name common in Ireland. The name Brian was also used in Brittany, and became quite popular in East Anglia, where it was spread by Breton immigrants, and in the north of England, brought over by Scandinavian settlers who had lived in Ireland. It experienced a revival in the early 20th century. Brian is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #169 in the 1900s, and joined the Top 100 in the 1920s. Peaking in the 1930s and ’40s at #7, Brian didn’t leave the Top 100 until the 1980s – Monty Python’s Life of Brian having turned it into a “joke name” didn’t help its fortunes. However, it’s been reasonably stable for about a decade, and is around the 300s. Brian remains a popular name in Ireland. This is a strong-sounding Irish classic still getting reasonable use.
Anglicised form of the Scottish name Cailean, meaning “whelp, pup, young dog” in Gaelic. It is also a medieval pet form of Col, short for Nicholas, so it’s an English name as well. Cuilén mac Ildulb was a 10th century King of the Scots, while Sir Colin Campbell (“Colin the Great”) was a 13th century cousin of Robert the Bruce, and one of the earliest known members of the Clan Campbell, ancestor of the Earls of Argyll. The name became traditional in the Campbell family because of him. Colin was #51 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1930s at #14. It left the Top 100 in the 1980s, and although it stayed in use for many years afterwards, now seems to be quite rare. Colin is a traditional name which has a gentle and slightly poetic feel, and works well in the middle.
Modern form of the Anglo-Saxon name Eadwine, meaning “rich friend”. The name was traditional amongst Anglo-Saxon royalty and nobility, with the most famous Edwin being a 7th century king of Northumbria who converted to Christianity; it was said that during his reign, the land was so peaceful that a woman with a new baby could walk across the country without being harmed (it tells you something that this was considered remarkable). He was canonised as a saint after his death. The name Edwin sunk in popularity after the Norman Conquest, but was revived in the 19th century during the Victorian enthusiasm for early English names. Edwin is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #52 in the 1900s, and #88 by the 1930s. It left the Top 100 in the 1940s, and is currently around the 400s. A good alternative to popular Edward, while still having Eddie, Ed, Ned, and Ted as nicknames.
English form of the Germanic name Friduric, translated as “peaceful ruler”; the modern German version is Friedrich. A favourite amongst European royalty, the name was traditional amongst the Holy Roman Emperors, with Frederick I also known as Frederick Barbarossa, meaning “red bearded” in Italian. Descended from two of Germany’s leading royal houses, he is regarded as the greatest of the medieval Holy Roman Emperors. Handsome, charismatic, and courtly, he was ambitious and skilful, greatly increasing Germany’s power base, and bringing back the Roman rule of law. According to medieval legend, he is not dead, but sleeps in a cave, waiting to return Germany to its former greatness. There are also a couple of medieval German saints named Frederick. The name was brought to England by the Normans after the Conquest, but it didn’t catch on. It was revived in the 18th century when the German House of Hanover inherited the British throne; Prince Frederick was the eldest son of King George II. Frederick is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #8 in the 1900s, and #26 by the 1930s. It left the Top 100 in the 1960s, and sunk to its lowest level in the 1990s, at #459. Since then it has gradually increased in popularity, and is now around the low 200s. A distinguished name with friendly nicknames like Fred and Freddie, Frederick is already popular in the UK.
Slavic form of John. A traditional Slavic name, there have been many famous Ivans in history, including six tsars of Russia, and many Croatian and Ukrainian leaders. St Ivan is a legendary hermit from Bohemia, while St Ivan of Rila is the patron saint of Bulgaria. Ivan continues to be a popular name in Eastern Europe, while the Spanish form Iván is popular in Spain and Latin America. Its long-term use in the English-speaking world may come from its similarity to the Welsh form of John, Ifan, so it can be seen as an Anglicised form of the Welsh name. Ivan is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #117 in the 1900s, peaked in the 1910s at #97, and was #100 in the 1930s. It left the Top 100 in the 1940s and is currently around the low 300s, having been reasonably stable since the 1990s. That makes it a great cross-cultural choice which has remained both familiar and underused.
Variant of Laurence, and the usual surname form of the name. St Lawrence of Rome was a 3rd century Spanish saint who was archdeacon of Rome during a time of Christian persecution. There are many stories and legends about him. One is that he spirited the Holy Grail to Spain, where it remains in Valencia. Another is that the Emperor demanded that Lawrence hand over all the church’s goods. Lawrence hastily distributed everything the poor, then presented the city’s suffering, saying that these were the true treasures of the church. For this act of defiance, he was supposedly martyred by being roasted over a gridiron; after hours of pain, he remarked cheerfully: I’m well done. Turn me over! He is one of the most widely venerated saints, and his tomb a favourite pilgrimage site since the 4th century. Lawrence is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #67 in the 1900s, peaked at #55 in the 1910s and ’20s, and was #61 in the 1930s. It left the Top 100 in the 1960s, and reached its lowest point in 2010 at #466. Since then it has risen again, and is now in the 200s, outstripping Laurence in popularity. This rugged-sounding classic comes with the nicknames Lawrie and Larry.
Medieval pet form of Leon, a Greek name meaning “lion”; it could also be directly from Lion, which was used as a nickname in the Middle Ages. According to Arthurian legend, Sir Lionel was a Breton king, and knight of the Round Table. He features in the Grail Quest, where he is shown to be unworthy of the Grail, and more interested in fighting than the spiritual life. Lionel of Antwerp was a son of King Edward III, and reputedly a giant of a man, almost seven feet tall and of athletic build. It is through him that the House of York claimed the throne of England, and the name was a common one amongst the aristocracy. Lionel was #68 in the 1900s, peaked in the 1910s at #66, and was #73 by the 1930s. It left the Top 100 in the 1950s, and hasn’t charted since the 1980s. The name is rising in both the the UK and US, fitting in well with both popular Leo, and the trend for animal names. Definitely a worthy choice that has too often been overlooked!
The Latin word for “king”, and the title of the ancient kings of Rome (“Rex Romae“) – according to legend, the first king of Rome was Romulus. The Roman monarchs did not inherit kingship, but were elected to the role, and held absolute power. The word rex is ultimately from an ancient root meaning “to rule”, and it is related to the Sanskrit term Raja, the German word reich, and the English words rich, right, regal, royal, reign, and realm. Rex has been used as a personal name since the 17th century, but only came into common use in the 19th century. Rex was #138 in the 1900s, and entered the Top 100 in the 1920s. Peaking in the 1930s at #74, Rex left the Top 100 in the 1950s. It left the charts in the 1980s, but returned the following decade at #635. It has continued climbing, and is now around the 300s. No wonder Rex is making a comeback – it’s short and snappy, ends in the fashionable X (like Max), and sounds very masculine and confident.
English form of the ancient Germanic name Walthari, meaning “ruler of the army”. It was brought to England by the Normans and soon replaced its Old English version, Wealdhere. Mythologist Jacob Grimm theorised that the name may have originally been an epithet of one of the Germanic war gods, and be linked to the Norse god Tyr. The name was especially famous in the Middle Ages because of Walter of Aquitaine, a legendary king of the Visigoths; medieval poems tell of his military exploits, fighting one-handed against his foes. He may be based on a 5th century king of Aquitaine, Wallia – his name is probably from the Old Norse for “slaughter”. There is a 12th century English saint called Walter. Walter was #15 in the 1900s, and #46 by the 1930s. It left the Top 100 in the 1950s, and dropped off the charts in the 1990s. However, it made a comeback in 2011 after the hit TV show Breaking Bad aired in Australia, with ailing chemistry teacher turned criminal Walter White played by Bryan Cranston. His name was inspired by the American poet, Walt Whitman, and he is also often known as Walt. His teenage son is Walter White Jr, giving the name a younger image to match Walter Snr’s villainous smarts. Walter is currently around the 500s, and it is yet to be seen whether it continues rising now the show has finished. I hope so, because this retro name now seems fresh and unconventional.
People’s favourite names were Walter, Frederick and Alfred, and their least favourites were Lionel, Ivan and Brian.
(Photo of men doing relief work during the Great Depression in 1933 from the National Library of Australia)
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