Baby Name of the Day: Ulysses

by appellationmountain on February 3, 2011

u girada

U girada by popdeganxet via Flickr

He’s literary, mythological, and figures in American history. He’s also more popular than you might guess.

Thanks to Darja for suggesting a name dear to her heart. Our Baby Name of the Day is Ulysses.

Clever Odysseus fought with his fellow Greeks during the Trojan War. In Homer’s Iliad, he gets credit for thinking up the Trojan Horse strategy. Victorious, Odysseus sets out to return home to his beloved Penelope. Like air travel during a winter storm, the trip is plagued by unexpected delays. These form the basis of Homer’s second work, the Odyssey.

Ulysses is the Latin version of the name. There were a few twists between Odysseus and Ulysses – Olusseus in a Greek dialect, Ulixes in the original translation to Latin. I can’t quite follow the path, but today they’re the accepted versions: Odysseus the Greek, Ulysses the Latin.

Names borrowed from antiquity were popular in nineteenth century America; Homer and Horace ranked in the Top 100. Virgil wasn’t far behind. Ulysses probably got a boost thanks to Tennyson’s 1842 poem “Ulysses.” You might recognize this line: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

The most famous bearer of the name was born Hiram Ulysses Grant. The Ohio native was inadvertently renamed by the Congressman who nominated him to West Point as Ulysses S. Grant. At the military academy, he was nicknamed Sam, from his initials – U.S., for Uncle Sam.

Grant went on to lead the Union Army to victory during the American Civil War. In 1868, he was elected President of the United States, and served two terms. After leaving office, he embarked on an odyssey of his own – a pricey world tour with his family. Late in life, he penned his memoirs, and his writing cemented his reputation while earning him a tidy sum.

Then there’s the novel by James Joyce, originally published as a serial between 1918 and 1922. Ulysses is about an ordinary day in the life of Leopold Bloom. It’s a wild ride – a collection of techniques that Joyce correctly forecast would be the subject of debates for decades to come.

All of this could be enough to make Ulysses too much name to consider, but he’s enjoyed surprisingly steady use:

  • The earliest American Ulysses I found was Ulysses Doubleday, born in 1792 and a US Congressman from New York. A few years later, Ulysses Mercur served from Pennsylvania;
  • The Grant family passed it on, at least until Ulysses S. Grant IV named his only son George;
  • Ulysses Daily was among the first African-American physicians in the US;
  • Dancer-turned-choreographer Ulysses Dove takes the name in a creative direction, as does sculptor Ulysses Ricci;
  • Athletes include baseball’s Ulysses Lupien – who answered to Tony – and Ulysses Stoner, who preferred Lil.

Ulysses is that rare character from myth that everyone recognizes. Kirk Douglas played him in a 1955 film adaptation. While he fell out of the US Top 1000 after 2005, he’s actually been on the edge ever since. In 2009, it took 194 newborns to chart in the Top 1000; according to Nancy, Ulysses, was given to 193 boys that year.

If Julius and Atticus are stylish, the equally ancient Ulysses can’t be too far out of fashion.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue January 6, 2014 at 12:56 PM

I love this name but as an adoptive first time single parent standing in court in Armenia I wimped out and used a backup name instead, a very boring ‘James’. I still have angst over not choosing it but caved to pressure of EVERYONE in my life who at best laughed and treated it as a joke. At worst my adoption facilitator suggested I pick a different name and change it when got back to US because worried a judge might see “such an odd name as sign of potential unstable parenting”. Too boot, my son who is now 10, adopted at age 3, still uses his orphanage given name of Karen (pronounced Kuh-run which I’m told is a common and very masculine name in Armenia). He does say he is glad I did not name him Ulysses (whaa): actually when I first told him it was one I considered he laughed and thought I was joking too.

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appellationmountain January 7, 2014 at 9:21 PM

Interesting story, Sue – thanks so very much for sharing! I wonder if the facilitator’s perspective was accurate, or if it reflected her own concerns? It seems like an Armenian court would have a hard time distinguished between our normal (Madison, Liam, Jayden) and something unusual like Ulysses. But it sounds perfectly plausible, so maybe …

Funny how kids have ideas about their own names from such young ages …

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Lo February 6, 2011 at 11:40 AM

My grandfather was named Ulysses Shakespeare JR. To him, the name was a burden as he was known at school as “Useless”. He went by U.S., though-which I love.

Ulysses is definitely a front-runner for me, and not just for my familial relationship with the name. I love it’s aged feel without being too exotic. It’s got a good history and a strong feel to it.

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Charlotte Vera February 4, 2011 at 1:48 AM

Mark actually suggested Ulysses for this baby, but the name reads just a wee bit too American for me to use without somehow feeling unpatriotic! Another drawback is the name’s similarity to the word “useless”. All the same, I do in fact like both the name and its history.

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Cara February 3, 2011 at 1:39 PM

I love this name. The Tennyson poem is a personal favorite & in elementary school, I found that Ulysses S. Grant & I share a birthday. I’d probably use it as a middle name.

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Adrian February 3, 2011 at 12:31 PM

I’ve heard the story that Ulysses Grant was happy to go along with the inadvertent name change because he was always embarrassed that his given name, Hiram Ulysses Grant, spelled the word HUG!

“Tales of Brave Ulysses” was a great song by Cream in the late ’60s. (Most names I like have some kind of musical association, it seems.)

This is a nice, offbeat name, but not so “out there” as to be unusable. I never realized Ulysses and Odysseus were the same person — thank you for that little tidbit. With Penelope as one of my favorite girls’ names, you’d think I would have known that. :)

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Julie February 3, 2011 at 12:17 PM

I’ve liked Ulysses since high school, when we studied the Odyssey. Like Lola mentioned, Ulysses would make a interesting and unexpected middle name.

Peter Fonda played a man named Ulysses in Ulee’s Gold, it wasn’t a big blockbuster, but it’s definately worth watching on netflix.

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Julie February 3, 2011 at 12:18 PM

definitely, not definately

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Sarah A February 3, 2011 at 11:54 AM

I really like Ulysses. I’m surprised he’s as popular as he is; he would fit right in with Julius and Atticus. Like many other ends-in-s boys names, Ulysses feels strong without being uber-masculine.

I agree with Lola that Uly could be a good nickname, although I think the name stands on its own quite nicely. Ulysses is definitely one to consider if you want a strong name that people have heard of but is still uncommon. The history of the president is really nice as well. Thumbs up from me :)

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Lola February 3, 2011 at 8:43 AM

After thinking about him for a minute, I find I firmly like Ulysses! He’s got the same feel Ambrose has (and I think everyone knows how I love Ambrose). I like Odysseus by association but wouuld happily use Ulysses in the middle. Henry Ulysses perhaps? Well, I have to think more on placement but Yeah, he’s fabulously solid. Uly (Yoo -lee) would be a neat nickname, too.
Before I really start rambling, I’ll end with Ulysses is Awesome! :)

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