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.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Carolyn March 13, 2011 at 9:17 PM

Just wanted to update that we welcomed our little Nolan Curtis on March 10th–and the name couldn’t be more perfect for him!

Reply

Bek February 17, 2011 at 11:30 AM

I quite like the name, and am a bit disappointed (in that weird name nerd way) about its growing popularity. Happy to see the name finding love in a lot of families, but bummed to see it going out to the masses. Oh well, haha.

I also love Nola/Finola so much a girl I know I’d never use Nolan. It was one of those names that used to make my long list, but never the final cuts. And now with a friend with the name, it seems off limits.

Reply

photoquilty February 13, 2011 at 11:59 AM

I just thought of another positive association for the name: Francie Nolan was the protagonist of one of my all-time favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Reply

Carolyn February 13, 2011 at 12:12 PM

Francie Nolan is where I first saw the name, so I share the same positive association. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also one of my all-time favorite books–and Francie Nolan one of the best characters in literature.

Reply

Sara February 13, 2011 at 11:56 AM

I personally am very disappointed at the growing popularity of this name. Already it feels tired to me, which is unfortunate because it has positive associations for me. I knew one Nolan growing up who was from a distinguished Southern family. He was a very masculine but quiet and polite sort of young man (which is saying a lot for a teenage boy). I think, because of him, the name has a bit of distinguished charm to it for me.

Reply

SkyeRhyly February 13, 2011 at 11:39 AM

Not a fan, I guess I’m over names ending in -n, plus when they already start with n, it seems too much. Probably why I never liked Nathan before, Nolan is pretty much the same way for me.

Reply

Carolyn February 13, 2011 at 12:49 AM

I’m the Carolyn who suggested the name (and is considering it for our son, due in a month!)–thanks, Abby, for the interesting, in-depth look into the name!

We already have a Meredith, and Nolan seems to fit well with that…we think?! It’s kind of a compromise name for us; hubby’s favorite is Lincoln, but I can’t seem to warm all the way up to it. My favorite is Thatcher, but he flat out hates that. Dashiell is something we’ve considered also, but it may be too “out there” for the part of the Midwest we live in.

When I think of a Nolan (I’ve only known one, in college) I picture someone friendly and warm–think that’s what draws me back to this one over and over! I’m not crazy about the “ending in -n” sound…but I can live with it in this case, I think…!

Thanks again, Abby!!

Reply

Panya February 12, 2011 at 11:48 PM

I’ve never been a fan of Nolan. I’m not fond of the sound, I think. All I can think of when I hear it is Nolan Ryan* — not a bad association, but the name is completely tied to him in my mind.

*And now Wil Wheaton, too — his stepsons are named Ryan and Nolan, and I can’t help but think they were named for the player.

Reply

photoquilty February 12, 2011 at 7:14 PM

Obviously that should read “coworker”, not “woworker”. However, woworker is funny to say, Try it.

Reply

photoquilty February 12, 2011 at 7:13 PM

My high school best friend lost her virginity to a Nolan. So when I hear the name, he is who I immediately think of.

Also, I was pregnant at the same time as the wife of a woworker of my husband. She gave her son Nolan as a middle name, but it’s the name he goes by. Funnily enough, his name sounds very similar to Nolan Ryan, which I think is cute.

I like the name. It’s unoffensive, not trendy in a way that’s painful to hear, and it has a nice sound.

Reply

British American February 12, 2011 at 5:34 PM

I’ve met 2 or 3 toddler Nolans at library storytimes and toddler classes and such. I didn’t realize that it has Irish roots.

I also know a 1 year old Noel and I think I prefer Noel over Nolan.

You mentioned Jesse in this post too – when I looked through our local elementary school directory, Jesse was a name that popped up several times, which surprised me. Somehow it is “overexposed” in our neighbourhood.

Reply

Sarah February 12, 2011 at 3:46 PM

I live in central Texas and I know 2 little boys named Nolan (and I know about 5 other families who have it on their short list for when they have a boy.) One of those families went ahead and named their daughter Rynne, and I feel it’s a fair assumption that most of the parents are familiar with the name because of Nolan Ryan. I completely agree that this name is headed straight up the charts!

Reply

Mere Mere February 12, 2011 at 3:41 PM

Nolan was the name we planned on using for a boy since we got married as it’s a family name on both sides, and I love the sound. Then my husband’s cousin used it (kudos to her, because this was 9 years ago)…then it entered the top 100. I was bummed. It’s still a favorite, and I suggest it to people who don’t care quite as much about popularity rankings. I love the nickname Nole/Noel, too (probably a holdover from Felicity). I think this name is what leads me to love Magnolia/Nola so much for a girl–or at least Nolan is where my love affair started with that similar sound.

Reply

Lemon February 12, 2011 at 3:24 PM

To me, Nolan sounds very young. I love it on a toddler – it’s adorable – but I have such a hard time seeing it on a grown man. It’s strange because I went to high school with a Nolan, but the name just never “clicked” for me. I don’t care for it…

Reply

Charlotte Vera February 12, 2011 at 2:53 PM

I first heard Nolan over ten years ago on a boy who was, at that time, eight years old. His older brother was Alaric, and I remember thinking that their mother had been a rather unique baby-namer. However, I’m now hearing Nolan more and more often, so the name doesn’t seem as novel to me anymore (you’re right, it is popular here in Canada). I still prefer it to a lot of the two-syllable-ends-in-n names that seem to be flourishing at the moment, but it’s not a name I’d use at present.

Reply

caroline February 12, 2011 at 10:28 AM

I do know one new baby Nolan, a twin to Clara. I live in Texas, so I’m surprised I don’t hear Nolan more than I do, but like you I anticipate hearing it more often.

Reply

photoquilty February 12, 2011 at 7:09 PM

Oooh, I like that as a twin-set. Very nice.

Reply

Lola February 12, 2011 at 8:43 AM

I’m already hearing Nolan a fair bit up here in east central MA. The addorable toddler at the ice cream social last week was a Nolan. I ran into another one in the local CVS two days ago and the now 4 year old I first met at the Hospital fund raiser 4 years ago. It’s definitely cropping up. I have to admit I’m completely worn out hearing those ‘two-syllable, ends in -n” names but Nolan seems distinctive somehow. Maybe it’s that ‘N” beginning. ‘N’ names generally aren’t wildly popular. Maybe because I actually admire Nolan Ryan, I don’t know. But I do like Nolan quite a bit and wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of him! Nolan’s neat.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 3 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: