Where did the baby name Attila come from in 1958?

Poster for 1958 release of the movie "Attila" (1954)

In Hungary, Attila was a top-20 baby name until just recently. In the U.S., on the other hand, Attila has never been very popular. It only started appearing in the data in the late 1950s:

  • 1960: 14 baby boys named Attila
  • 1959: 14 baby boys named Attila
  • 1958: 10 baby boys named Attila [debut]
  • 1957: unlisted
  • 1956: unlisted

Why? Because of the 1954 movie Attila the Hun, which starred Anthony Quinn as Attila, the aggressive 5th-century ruler of the Huns.

I know what you’re thinking: How did a movie from 1954 cause a 1958 debut?

Well, the movie was an Italian production, so it was first released in Italy. The next year it came out in Portugal, West Germany, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, and France. In 1956, it was released in Spain, Sweden, and Japan. In 1957, it came out in Norway and Finland. Finally, in the middle of 1958, the movie reached the United States.

Attila the Hun may be a world-famous historical figure, but unfortunately no one knows what his name means. One theory is that Attila was derived from the Gothic word atta, meaning “father.” Another is that is has Turkic roots and means “the oceanic, universal [ruler].”

But here are some things we do know: Attila’s name morphed into “Etzel” in the medieval German epic poem Nibelungenlied. A variant of Etzel, Edsel, was the first name of Henry Ford’s childhood best friend Edsel Ruddiman. Later, it also became the name of his only son, Edsel Ford (1893-1943). And Edsel Ford’s first name ended up on the famously unsuccessful line of cars launched by Ford in the late ’50s — around the same time Attila popped up on the baby name charts, ironically.

Which name do you like better, Attila or Edsel?

Sources: Attila – IMDb, Attila – Wikipedia
Image: Poster for Attila (U.S. release, 1958)

6 thoughts on “Where did the baby name Attila come from in 1958?

  1. I’ve never met an Attila, but my parents had a good friend named Attilio that I knew as a child. He went by Pete among friends & family. He was likely born in the early 30s. I think his family was Italian.

  2. @Ellyn: Attilio actually has a completely different background and meaning: There was a Roman family, the gens Attilia, probably of Etruscan origin, bearing this name.

  3. @Ghebuz – That’s an interesting theory as well! You could be right. I’m going to look into it. Thanks!

    @Ellyn – My great-grandfather, who was born in Italy, was an Attilio as well.

  4. Ok, here’s some information on the Hungarian refugees of ’56 from the CIA:

    The outbreak took place on 23 October 1956, and in the months following, it is estimated that 188,000 Hungarians found refuge in Austria and 18,000 in Yugoslavia. As of 1 September 1957, approximately 35,000 of these refugees had accepted asylum in the US.

    So the U.S. saw an influx of tens of thousands of Hungarians in 1956/1957.

    And here’s some of the state data for the name Attila:

    • 1965: 12 Attilas nationally
    • 1964: 16 Attilas nationally, 6 in New York
    • 1963: 16 Attilas nationally, 6 in California
    • 1962: 12 Attilas nationally, 5 in New Jersey
    • 1961: 11 Attilas nationally
    • 1960: 14 Attilas nationally
    • 1959: 14 Attilas nationally, 6 in Ohio
    • 1958: 10 Attilas nationally
    • 1957: unlisted

    Notably, Ohio has a particularly large number of Hungarians. Same with NJ, NY and CA. But the Hungarian communities there — and in other states — existed long before the 1950s.

    So it does look like Attila was particularly popular among Hungarians and/or Hungarian-Americans. Hard to know how much of the usage was in pre-existing Hungarian communities and how much was among refugees, though.

    (And few other distinctly Hungarian names, like Laszlo, Imre, Miklos, popped up for the first time — and others, like Lazar and Gabor, returned after an absence — in the late ’50s.)

    So…that makes Attila a tricky case! Maybe the usage was the combined effect of both the movie and the Hungarian community? Hm…

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