A while back, I stumbled upon a register of people associated with Oxford University in the late 1500s and early 1600s. The most interesting part? The author of the register included a chapter dedicated to first names and surnames, and that chapter featured a table of male forenames ranked by frequency of occurrence from 1560 to 1621.
The author claimed that, for several reasons, these rankings were “probably…more representative of English names than any list yet published” for that span of time. One reason was that the names represented men from “different grades of English society” — including peers, scholars, tradesmen, and servants.
Ready for the list?
John, 3,826 individuals
Ralph (sometimes confused with Raphael/Randall in the records), 182
Matthew (sometimes confused with Matthias), 116
Alexander, 98 (tie)
Arthur, 98 (tie)
Simon (sometimes confused with Simeon), 83
Joseph, 78 (tie)
Lewis, 78 (tie)
Roland (also Rowland), 65
Griffith (also Griffin), 60
Abraham, 54 (tie)
Leonard, 54 (tie)
Morris (sometimes confused with Maurice), 51
Bartholomew, 46 (3-way tie)
Oliver, 46 (3-way tie)
Timothy, 46 (3-way tie)
Martin, 44 (tie)
Rice (sometimes confused with Richard), 44 (tie)
Jeffrey (also Geoffrey; sometimes confused with Godfrey), 38
Toby (also Tobias), 34
Bernard, 28 (3-way tie)
Gregory (sometimes confused with George), 28 (3-way tie)
Isaac, 28 (3-way tie)
Jasper (also Gaspar), 26
Randall (also Randle, Randolph; sometimes confused with Ralph), 26 (tie)
Did the relative popularity of any of these names surprise you?
Entries lower down on the list included Lancelot (23), Jarvis (22) Theophilus (19), Marmaduke (18), Fulke (17), and Cadwalader (9).
The author also included every other Oxford-associated name from that general time period, so here’s a sampling of the rare names that popped up in the register just once:
The curious name Kalimba has popped up in the U.S. baby name data just twice, the first time in 1974:
1974: 7 baby girls named Kalimba
Where did it come from?
An Earth, Wind & Fire song called “Kalimba Story,” which was included on the 1974 album Open Our Eyes. The song was released as a single the same year, and in August peaked on two different Billboard charts: the Hot 100 (at #55) and R&B/Hip-Hop (at #6).
From the refrain:
Kalimba, ooh kalimba Play me a tune Kalimba, ooh kalimba I’m glad I found you
In the song, “Kalimba” doesn’t refer to a person — it refers to a musical instrument. A kalimba is an African thumb piano played by plucking metal tines attached to a wooden board. One contemporary reviewer described the instrument as “a hand-held whatzit that looks like a TV remote control device and sounds like an electric piano.”
Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White favored the kalimba and featured it in multiple songs. In the liner notes to EWF’s Eternal Dance compilation album, White explained that “the kalimba represented my link to Africa. It was my way of taking part of that culture and spreading it all over the world.”
My dad came out to visit us in Colorado recently. He loves geology, so we made sure to take him to several different places with impressive rocks/terrain.
One place we visited was Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. In this park we spotted the above sign, which described how the park got its name back in the 1850s:
As they looked over this area of cathedral-like rock spires, one man, Malancthon Beach, commented that the spot would be a great place for a beer garden someday. His friend, a poetic young man named Rufous Cable, replied that it was a place “fit for the Gods.”
It’s a cool story, but, to me, that first name “Malancthon” is way more interesting than the origin of the park name. Where did it come from?
My best guess is that Malancthon is a tribute to 16th-century German theologian Philipp Melanchthon, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. His surname at birth was Schwartzerd (“black earth” in German), but as a young man he Latinized his name to the classical equivalent Melanchthon (“black earth” in Greek).
We also saw some names at Red Rocks, which is both a park and a famous amphitheater.
The amphitheater was constructed from 1936 to 1941 by men in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program that existed during the Great Depression. One display included a photo of 124 of the men in the local CCC. Here are their first names, sorted by frequency:
Actress Melissa Gilbert is probably best known for portraying young Laura Ingalls Wilder on the TV series Little House on the Prairie (1974–1984). Her TV father, Charles, was played by actor Michael Landon.
In October of 1995, Melissa and her second husband welcomed a son (12 weeks early). He was named Michael Garrett — “Michael” in honor of Michael Landon, who had died of cancer in 1991, and “Garrett” in honor of the deceased teenage son of family friends.
Landon’s birth name was Eugene Maurice Orowitz. His nickname in primary school was “Ooogy.” He chose his stage name by flipping through a phone book.
The name Bear was just barely being used before adventurer Bear Grylls (birth name: Edward Grylls) came to our attention via the TV series Man vs. Wild (2006-2011).
Since then, usage has increased steadily — both among regular folks and among celebrities:
2017: English musician Liam Payne had son Bear Grey
2017: English musician Howard Donald had son Dougie Bear
2013: English actress Kate Winslet had son Bear Blaze
2011: American actress Alicia Silverstone had son Bear Blu
2010: English chef Jamie Oliver had son Buddy Bear Maurice
In the U.S., the baby name Bear is currently sitting just outside the top 1,000:
2016: 186 baby boys named Bear [rank: 1,055th]
2015: 134 baby boys named Bear [rank: 1,311th]
2014: 131 baby boys named Bear [rank: 1,327th]
2013: 84 baby boys named Bear [rank: 1,730th]
2012: 79 baby boys named Bear [rank: 1,845th]
2011: 85 baby boys named Bear [rank: 1,728th]
The England and Wales data for 2016 isn’t out yet, but Bear entered the top 1,000* there in 2015:
2015: 36 baby boys named Bear in E/W [rank: 859th]
2014: 19 baby boys named Bear in E/W [rank: 1,330th]
2013: 15 baby boys named Bear in E/W [rank 1,546th]
2012: 19 baby boys named Bear in E/W [rank 1,319th]
2011: 7 baby boys named Bear in E/W [rank 2,650th]
But this data only accounts for first names. The principal usage for Bear could be happening under the radar, with middles. Two of the celebs above used Bear as a middle, and so did this Canadian couple who hit on a bear on the way to the delivery room. And don’t forget American actress Zooey Deschanel, who didn’t opt for Bear, but did give her kids the animal-middles Otter and Wolf.
Do you like Bear as a baby name? How high do you think it will climb on the U.S. charts?