A Funny Thing About William

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US Social Security records indicate that the five most popular boys’ names in 1915 were John, William, James, Robert, and Joseph.

In 2014, the top five were Noah, Liam, Mason, Jacob, and William.

Not only has William remained a popular given name for 100 years, it has become doubly popular with the newcomer Liam.

Liam is another version of William.

Of Germanic origin, William is a compound of the Old German element vila, “will” or “resolution,” and helm, “helmet.” The name can be translated as “helmet of resolution” and occurs in different forms in different modern languages:

German: Wilhelm
English: William
Irish: Ulliam (shortened to Liam)
French: Guillaume
Spanish: Guillermo
Italian: Guglielmo
Portuguese: Guilherme

According to an article at MooseRoots (a genealogy research engine), in 2014, William was the most popular name given to newborn boys in 14 states, and Liam the top name in 17 states. The article suggests that William is more popular in the South and Liam in the North, but a closer look at the state-by-state statistics given on another part of the site shows that in several of the states in which Liam is number one, William is close behind. In eleven states, both William and Liam rank in the top three:

North Dakota

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5 thoughts on “A Funny Thing About William”

  1. A funny thing about top male names vs. top female names is that the men’s names are usually more easily shortened to one syllable than the women’s, so you have James, John, Bob, Mike, Bill, Dave, Rich, Charles (an exception—I don’t know many who go by “Chuck.”), Joe, and John on the men’s side and Mary, Patricia, Linda, Barbara, Elizabeth, Jennifer, Maria, Susan, Margaret, Dorothy on the women’s. I know many more women who insist on using the long form of their names than men.

  2. It’s funny; this came up just this past weekend. We were watching a show where a character got a fake ID that gave her name as Cassie. Her fellow shady character saw it and said something like, “why did you pick Cassie? It isn’t even a real name. I mean, if it was short for Cassandra or something…” Of course is was not a major plot point, but it really resonated with me because one of my pet peeves (I’ve got an exotic menagerie of ‘em, ) is the giving of nicknames or diminutives as if they were real names. Liam is a case of that malady, albeit one that many are not cognizant of. But there are a lot of other obvious offenders out there. Jack is one of the most popular names now. Jack is not a name. It’s an informal, diminutive, nickname for John, pretty much the same as naming your kid Johnny—or Mac, or Buster, or Chip, or Skippy, or really Fido or Rover because diminutive people names are common names for dogs, too. The practice isn’t that new. I had an uncle named Bobby who spent a good portion of his life explaining to various bureaucracies, with limited success, that his name was not actually Robert. I have a brother-in-law named Don who goes through the same thing. Why do parents to that to some poor little newborn?

    In the past the practice seems to have been limited to the less educated SECs who were probably not aware of etymology. The worst outcome is when people give 2 or more of their children what is really the same name: Sally and Sarah, Sarah and Sadie, Mary and Molly, Molly and Polly, Beth and Lisa, Christine and Tina, William and Liam, etc. Nowadays it seems like the practice has really taken off, maybe part of the effort to allow people to remain immature for longer—do your really take a grown man called JimJims seriously?

  3. I find the study of names fascinating. I have been in the medical field and seen patients come and go, and it is amazing what people name their kids. I can barely begin to list some really strange ones, but let me say I have seen ordinary Americans named Outlet, Limousine (her friends call her Limo, pronounced lih-MOH), Chlorine and Neisseria (note that is the name of the bacterium that causes gonorrhea…but they liked the sound of it, I guess…), and many that are hardly pronounceable. I know a little boy named Crimson (not sure why and not going to ask). You have Crystal, Krystal, Khrystal…not to mention names like Dwyane. OK, I will stop here…I keep saying I will start a list, and I think I once did, but I can’t find it.

  4. @bluebird: I hear you. Making up names out of whole cloth is one thing, but actually adopting names that are offensive or derogatory is another. I had a distant relative named Ort. Ort, which means garbage. I am pretty sure his parents were unaware of that meaning of the word ort, but still, why do that? It wasn’t done for any discernible reason– initials, after someone else, etc. Likewise insisting on unconventional spellings for normal names. Sometimes it does no harm, e.g. Jeffrey, Dwayne. Marsha. Shawn is hard to forgive—I mean if you want to give the kid a faux-Irish name, stick with the kind-of Irish spelling. But other times it come off just ridiculous: your “Dwyane” , or Shelia which they pronounce as Sheila (SHEE-la) which make no sense at all and just make the parents (and by proxy, the poor child) look stupid. I guess Brett Favre is a hereditary example of this, so you can’t blame him. I think Lori Greiner (indefensibly pronounced gre-NIR, as if it were spelled Grenier) married the problem so she can’t be held culpable, either. But it’s very easy in America to change the spelling of your name— Farvre (or pronounced it Fave like millions of others with the name do). So they are at least accessories to nomenclatural malpractice.

    Sometimes it kind of comically backfires— I know a couple who named their son Geoffrey which they pronounced JO-free, like the ballet company. They got very spirited about how they disliked the name Jeffrey, and so had purposely chosen their spelling, and could not believe how many people in the wide world could not read and called the poor boy Jeffrey anyway. They had no clue at all that their carefully specified spelling WAS the traditional one of the name pronounced JEF-ree that they so detested. I told them, of course, and was just met with blank stares and slight whitening of the faces. Can’t help it. The absolute worst manifestation of this, IMO, is the insistence on people with the name Xavier—who are popping up like weeds after rain—pronouncing it EG-zay-vyer, under the apparent assumption that the letter X just gets called by name instead of having a pronunciation like any other letter (cf barbeque).

    @Bob E Sherman: Yes. So it would be expected that people born in 1915 would be in its records. They would be among the first payers.

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