What’s the Origin of Thelonious?

Thelonious MonkEver wonder about Thelonious Monk’s distinctive first name?

The jazz great inherited the name from his father, Thelonious Monk, Sr., who was born in North Carolina in 1889. No one knows for sure how his father came to have the name, but I’ve seen some good guesses:

  • Biographers Jacques Ponzio and Francois Postif think Thelonious comes from Thelonius, a Latinized form of the German name Tillman/Tillmann, which would had been brought to the Carolinas by German missionaries.
  • Biographer Robin D. G. Kelley suggests it was based on the name of St. Tillo, a 7th-century Benedictine monk. “In France he is called St. Theau, […] and in Germany he was referred to as Hilonius.”
  • Author Sam Stephenson brings up the possibility that it was inspired by “a renowned black minister in nearby Durham, North Carolina, Fredricum Hillonious Wilkins.”

How many baby boys have been named Thelonious since Thelonious Monk became well known? The name started popping up on the Social Security Administration’s baby name list in the 1960s:

  • 1968: 9 baby boys named Thelonious
  • 1967: unlisted
  • 1966: unlisted
  • 1965: 10 baby boys named Thelonious
  • 1964: 7 baby boys named Thelonious
  • 1963: 6 baby boys named Thelonious
  • 1962: unlisted
  • 1961: unlisted
  • 1960: 5 baby boys named Thelonious [debut]
  • 1959: unlisted

There were at least 24 more in the 1970s, 11 more in the 1980s, 36 more in the 1990s, and 88 more in the 2000s. That’s a grand total of at least 196 babies named Thelonious over the last fifty years.

Sources:

  • Fitterling, Thomas. Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music. Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 1997.
  • Kelley, Robin D. G. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. New York: Free Press, 2009.
  • Stephenson, Sam. “Thelonious Monk: Is This Home?” Oxford American 2007 Music Issue: 112-117.

8 thoughts on “What’s the Origin of Thelonious?

  1. I would like to say that all of those suggestions don’t seem to be appropriate to me. After some consideration, I believe that “Thelonious” was adapted via a grammatical error. For instance, Oprah was supposed to be named after “Orpha” in the Bible. I believe that Thelonious was supposed to be named after the Book of Thessalonians in the Bible as well. That sounds a little more appropriate when you think about slaves naming babies; they weren’t all exactly able to read/write in the 1800’s.

    Anyway, my husband and I have also named my first son after Mr. Monk. His name has a different spelling: Thelonius.

    Thanks for the interesting post, though!

  2. That’s an interesting theory. None of the biographies I checked made any mention of Thessalonians as a possible origin of Thelonious.

    I don’t know whether or not the parents of Monk, Sr., were literate. I would like to specify thought that they were sharecroppers, not slaves.

  3. My grand Son born 2010 is named Thelonious (nick name Tillo) after Thelonious Sphere Monk who i my favorite composer.
    So my daugther grow up listening to Monk and love it

  4. According to census records, Thelonious Sr. attended school until the fourth grade and could read and write, as could his father. I don’t know if that really helps to determine the origin of the name, though!

  5. @Thelonious – A lot of baby name websites don’t offer accurate/complete definitions, unfortunately.

    Baby Names World is trying to link Thelonious to the Germanic name Theodoric — which does mean “ruler of the people” — by way of the diminutive Tillo.

    Tillo/Tilo connects to Theodoric in that it was once a short form of German/Dutch Diet- names like Dietrich (Dietrich is a German/Dutch form of Theodoric).

    But we don’t know for certain if Tillo gave rise to Thelonious. So the Baby Names World definition is based on an assumption.

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