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On August 2 this year, it was reported that the descendants of notorious bushranger Edward “Ned” Kelly were about to receive his remains, 132 years after he was hanged for murder. At that time, the bodies of executed prisoners were buried in unmarked graves in Melbourne Gaol, and Kelly was one of them. In 1929, he and several others were re-buried in Pentridge Prison during renovations to Melbourne Gaol, and last year scientists were able to identify Ned Kelly’s skeleton from a group of twenty-four at Pentridge, by comparing his DNA to that of living members of the Kelly family. The Kellys can now give Ned a private burial.

Ned Kelly was the son of an Irish convict, and gained notoriety as a horse thief and cattle rustler before being convicted of bank robbing and murder. He was hanged on November 11 1880. He looms large in the Australian imagination, and is widely seen as a folk hero, and a symbol of Irish-Australian resistance against the ruling classes and police corruption. There is in the Ned Kelly legend a particular type of Australian masculinity which is admired: physically powerful, ballsy, defiant, daring, anti-authority, and an under-dog. The phrase, As game as Ned Kelly, is the ultimate praise for bravery, and his legend has spawned countless folk stories and ballads – not to mention a few films.

The name Ned is a pet form of names starting with Ed-, such as Edward and Edmund. It has been used as a nickname since at least the 14th century, and as an independent name since the 17th century. One theory is that it began life as a contraction of the affectionate “mine Ed“, which became understood as “my Ned”. Although this can’t be verified (and Elea at British Baby Names remains slightly sceptical), the story does add a layer of sweetness to the name.

It is among the first names that crossed the pond, because a baby named Ned was born in the English colony of Virginia, so it became a British and American name almost simultaneously. It has often appeared in American popular culture, such as Ned Flanders on The Simpsons and Ned Dorsey from 1990s sit-com Ned and Stacey. All-American girl detective Nancy Drew even had a boyfriend named Ned Nickerson. (Ned and Nancy! Adorable!). Ned was on the US Top 1000 until the mid-1970s.

Like Kevin in England and Bevan in Australia, it’s a name with a bad rep elsewhere, because in Scotland ned is slang for a hooligan or petty criminal. Given our own history with the name, this seems unlikely to put Australian parents off. Here solid unpretentious Ned will always be associated with folk hero Ned Kelly, but as it’s currently fashionable as an upper-class name in England, this makes it seem quite chic as well.

Kelly is an Anglicisation of the Irish surname Ó Ceallaigh, meaning “son of Ceallach”. Ceallach is often interpreted as meaning “bright headed”, but it may mean “church-going”, as the Irish word for church is ceall. It can also be seen as an Anglicisation of Ó Cadhla, meaning “son of Cadhla”, with the male name Cadhla meaning “attractive, graceful”.

Outside Ireland, the surname Kelly can be from place names in Scotland (in this case, probably from the Anglo-Saxon meaning “calf hill”) and in Devon, the latter derived from the Cornish word for “grove”. However, it is much more common as an Irish surname.

Kelly has been used as a first name since at least the late 17th century, and is another name which seems to have been used in Britain and America almost at the same time. It appears to have quickly become far more common in America as an Irish heritage name.

Although the name was first given to boys, in a relatively brief space of time the name seems to have been accepted as unisex, with roughly even numbers of males and females named Kelly in colonial America. Quite a few of the early American Kellys arrived directly from Ireland itself, and these were just as likely to be female, if not more so.

I don’t know why, but the name seems to have been commonly given to the sons and daughters of Christianised black African indentured servants in early colonial America. I would be fascinated to know the reason for this, and wonder if there is an African name Keli that seemed familiar to both cultures. Or perhaps working alongside Irish indentured servants gave them a fondness for the name.

Kelly first shows up on the US Top 1000 in 1880 as a male name, and first appears there for females in 1944. It grew in popularity for both sexes, but really took off as a girl’s name in the 1950s with the fame of glamorous Hollywood actress Grace Kelly (of Irish background). After she became Princess Grace of Monaco, the name simply bounded up the popularity charts.

Kelly peaked for both boys and girls in the late 1960s, but then lost ground as a boy’s name, while maintaining a female presence; it even managed to peak again for girls in the 1970s. Kelly hasn’t ranked as a boy’s name in the US for ten years, while it is now #335 for girls, and falling.

In Australia, the history of the name is much shorter, and it only ever charted for girls. It first appears in the charts in the 1950s at #560 (about one Kelly per year). By the following decade, it was already in the Top 100, and peaked in the 1970s at #13. It left the Top 100 in the early 2000s, and last year just ten baby girls named Kelly were born in New South Wales, giving it a ranking of #641.

Amongst the most common Google searches used to reach my blog are those enquiring about using Kelly as a boy’s name, and many of these are from Australia. With Kelly becoming rare as a name for girls, and the fame of American world surfing champion Kelly Slater (of Irish background) lifting its profile internationally as a male name, this seems the perfect time for Kelly to step up and gain more use for boys in Australia.

I hope that these assiduous Googlers are giving serious thought to choosing Kelly as their son’s name. I scan the birth notices for Kelly, and this year I have only seen it used as a middle name for boys. However, Kelly Slater himself uses his middle name (his first name is Robert), so these babies do have the choice to go by the name Kelly when they get older.

NOTE: Although you are free to call your child Ned, or Kelly, it is, bizarrely, forbidden in New South Wales to name a baby Ned Kelly. This makes Ned Kelly one of Australia’s rare illegal names.

(The picture is from Sidney Nolan’s series of paintings of Ned Kelly in his armour 1946-47. These images are some of the most iconic and recognisable of Australian artworks. Taken from ABC News).

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