Where did the baby name Thelonious come from in the 1960s?

Jazz musician Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)
Thelonious Monk

Ever 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.”

The name Thelonious started popping up in the U.S. baby name data in the 1960s, when Monk was at the height of his fame:

  • 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

Since then, hundreds of baby boys have received the name. (And a handful of others have gotten the spelling Thelonius.)

What are your thoughts on the name Thelonious?


  • 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.

Image: Adapted from Thelonious Monk (public domain)

13 thoughts on “Where did the baby name Thelonious come from in the 1960s?

  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.

  6. Thelonious B, I actually named my Lil man David Thelonius after looking through its meaning ruler of the people, yes King David was so I wanted something similar and landed on Thelonious but the spelling differs from yours. I wanted a name similar to his dad Theophile but not exact yet loved King David of the Bible.

  7. On august 21st 2019 I name my first son Thelonious But I didnt get it from thelonious monk I first heard of it and fell in love with it in the movie Babe goes to the city you know it as the Pig movie? The wise Monkey is named Thelonious ever since I was stuck to that name and still till this day get asked so many times where did I get his name from I do love Jazz but my favorite jazz I would say actually is called big Band is Louis prima. Thelonious is such a Out standing name and in a good way I love it.

  8. @Spyros – While they do look very similar, the names Theodore and Theodoric don’t have the same root. Theodore comes from a Greek name (with elements meaning “gift” + “god”), but Theodoric comes from a Germanic name (with elements meaning “people” + “king”).

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