Baby Name of the Day: Nolan

by appellationmountain on February 12, 2011

N (North Scituate, RI)

N by takomabibelot via Flickr

He’s a lively Irish surname associated with the most American of pastimes.

Thanks to Carolyn for suggesting one of the options she’s considering for her baby on the way. Our Baby Name of the Day is Nolan.

Let’s begin in the middle: Nolan Ryan was born Lynn Nolan Ryan, Jr. Lynn Sr. encouraged his son’s interest in baseball, and in 1966, Ryan made his debut with the New York Mets. In 1999, the pitcher was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s still active in the sport, as president of the Texas Rangers.

As Ryan’s career flourished, his name caught on. While Nolan has appeared in the US Top 1000 every year since 1899, it wasn’t too common in the 1960s. The name rose as Ryan compiled his impressive record, and entered the US Top 200 in 2000.

It wasn’t just the baseball player. Nolan follows logically from Kevin and Brian, Ryan and Aidan – friendly Irish choices, mostly nickname proof, following the two-syllable, ends-in-n pattern.

Nolan’s roots trace back to the Irish given name Nuallán. His meaning is open for debate:

  • The first element – nuall – is often said to mean noble or champion – with that familiar -an suffix tacked on;
  • Another site dedicated to the family’s heritage suggests that the name comes from the Gaelic word nuall – but says it means “to shout,” as in a battle cry.

The second one is confirmed in this dictionary, but the first one seems more common. Either way, the given name became a surname – Ó Nualláin – and made it back to the English-speaking world as Nolan.

Here’s the curious thing about Nolan: he’s also linked to chariots.

The Celts were big into chariots, usually two-horse models. Warrior Queen Boudica is often pictured in a chariot. But it is the hero Cú Chulainn who is most often associated with the conveyance. He has incredible strength and endurance, once defending Ulster from an army of invaders almost single-handedly. There’s even a later story that involves Cú Chulainn appearing in his chariot to aid Saint Patrick in his attempt to convert Ireland to Christianity.

But the link between these stories and Nolan is elusive. You’ll see it referenced, but I can’t explain it.

That curiosity aside, forces are conspiring to make Nolan the next big thing:

  • He fits the pattern so popular for the past few decades – two-syllable, ends-in-n;
  • Irish surnames from Riley to Sullivan continue to attract attention;
  • Nolan owes some of his success to current Top Ten name Noah.

Nolan ranked #121 in 2009, and has climbed steadily for the past few years. He’s popular in Canada, too.

The question for Nolan isn’t why he’s catching on; it’s whether he’ll become an epidemic. Other names currently ranked between 100 and 150 include Preston, Jesse, Patrick, Seth, Alan, Ryder, and Jonah, none of which can be called overexposed.

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