Gulliver: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on October 25, 2012

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (Photo credit: infomatique)

He’s among the most famous of fictional travelers, an adventurer who lends his surname quite a bit of style.

Thanks to Nicole for suggesting Gulliver as our Baby Name of the Day.

Gulliver is a last name, of course.  Jonathan Swift’s intrepid sailor was named Lemuel.  Gulliver comes from the Old French goulafre - glutton, making Gulliver a nickname for a greedy person.  It must have come from France with the Norman invasion.  From the eleventh century into the 1300s, variants of the name include Gulafra, Gulafre, Gollafre, and Gullavere.

But that doesn’t appear to be Swift’s motivation for choosing the name.  Instead, the surgeon-turned-sea captain’s name seems to signify that Gulliver is gullible.  Despite his extraordinary journeys, Gulliver is no Odysseus – he’s a regular Joe dropped into wildly different lands, rather than a hero on a quest.  The 2010 movie adaptation put comedian Jack Black in the title role.

Incidentally, the story is written in the first person, and Lemuel Gulliver’s name never appears in print, only on title page.

Even if you’ve never read the story and avoided every movie adaptation Gulliver’s Travelsis widely known – never out of print, read as a bedtime story and a political satire, too.  That’s the charm of the name.  Most of us find the idea of travel appealing in some sense, and Gulliver feels innocent and worldly at once.  The novel is so popular that you can forget gluttony and gullibility – Gulliver means adventurer.

But is anyone actually using the name?

It was given to fewer than five boys in 2011.  There are a few dozen Gullivers in US Census records, but not many.  After all, Swift’s tales were first published in 1726.  Even if it happened to be your surname, perhaps you would have hesitated to pass it down with such a famous literary namesake.  Then again, compared to, say Jackson, Gulliver wasn’t that common a surname.  He’s in sparing use in the UK, too.

As a name, Gulliver is on our radar because of a very high profile birth.  Back in 1997, Gary Oldman named his son Gulliver Flynn.  He was way ahead of the curve with that middle name, but his boy’s literary first has yet to catch on.  Damian Lewis - you know him from Homeland - also has a Gulliver, born in 2007, a little brother for Manon.  But Lewis has one of those distinguished English family pedigrees that seem to invite a certain amount of deliciously daffy naming style.  A quick walk through his family tree in the twentieth century reveals Watcyn, Arabella, Ursula and Bertrand.

For what it is worth, Nicole’s inspiration wasn’t English aristocracy, Hollywood actors, or the novel – instead, she spotted a line of children’s furniture by the name at Ikea.

So is he wearable in the real world?  He gets mixed reviews on message boards, with his defenders pointing out his similarity to Oliver and plenty of other surname names.  And when you read him in a sibset, like the lists at British Baby Names, he blends right in: Barnaby, Casper, Gulliver, and Cecilia.  Or Katherine, Gulliver, and Dulcinea.
Still, the balance of opinion finds Gulliver way out there.  If you’re bringing baby home to certain corners of Brooklyn or L.A., Gulliver could be pitch perfect – the new Atticus.  But in other places, this name might be something of a challenge.
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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie October 27, 2012 at 11:23 PM

If anyone is finding the Gulliver = Glutton meaning is troubling, Gull is “gold” in Norwegian. (It’s also a short form of the feminine name Gunhild, but that’s another issue altogether.)

I like Gulliver, but I adore Lemuel…

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appellationmountain October 28, 2012 at 5:48 PM

Oh, that’s a lovely fact – thanks, Julie!

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waltzingmorethanmatilda October 26, 2012 at 4:53 AM

“Gulliver’s Travels” was one of my favourite books when I was a child, filled with that 18th century mixture of magic and satire they did so well.

I love the sound of Gulliver, and I would love to meet a little Gulliver, but I think the namesake is too big and real for me to use it myself. I think it’s actually more usable if you haven’t read the book.

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Charlotte Vera October 26, 2012 at 5:20 PM

I agree. I think I would have been more open to the idea of actually using Gulliver prior to reading Swift’s work.

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Bella October 25, 2012 at 3:54 PM

It reminds me too much of seagulls and gullible for it to really work for me. Hypothetically, I like Swift and Lemuel but if it came down to naming a real child, I’d probably stick with Jonathan :)

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Claire October 25, 2012 at 3:09 PM

I just can’t separate Gulliver from “gullible.” It doesn’t help that the character himself is kind of hapless. I don’t like the name Atticus, either, but at least he’s an intelligent, heroic character.

I like Swift, though. I might use it–for a boy or a girl.

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Charlotte Vera October 25, 2012 at 4:02 PM

I know, I can’t get past that “gullible” similarity too — or the famous character himself, whose narrative alternatively made me laugh, groan, gag, and want to give him a good, hard slap!

I wonder what inspired Gary Oldman and Damian Lewis to use the name. Was it a fondness for the name’s sound, or its famous literary bearer? Lewis’ other daughter’s name is fascinating too: Manon. My only association with the name is the French novella and the opera it inspired. Neither version of the story ends happily.

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appellationmountain October 26, 2012 at 6:23 AM

I’d love to know the answer to your question, too – I don’t think either of them has ever mentioned it in an interview. Oldman’s other kids are Alfie and Charlie, so Gulliver feels like a departure for him …

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appellationmountain October 26, 2012 at 6:22 AM

Swift could be a lovely middle for either – not sure if I’d put it in the first spot.

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Matilda Magazine October 25, 2012 at 1:10 PM

I love Gulliver. I wish I saw more of him in birth announcements.

Sarah

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Nicole October 25, 2012 at 12:57 PM

Abby, I think you hit the nail on the head with “Gulliver feels innocent and worldly at once”. I feel that this is how I see a future son, innocent worldly adventurer. Also what I love about this name and it feels familiar because of its long literary history and likeness to Oliver but is obviously very rare. I agree with Megaladay Gull or Gully is fun. I didn’t know Damian Lewis had a little Gulliver!!! I love him in Homeland, and now love him even more for having a son named Gulliver. Thanks for the write up, Ikea is always a fun place for names!

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appellationmountain October 26, 2012 at 6:20 AM

Ikea is great for names, isn’t it!

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Megalady October 25, 2012 at 12:25 PM

I like Gulliver. It has an easy, appealing sound. And I think shortening it to Gull or even Gully (like Sully) could be cute.

Now I want to meet a little Gulliver.

:D

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Colleen October 25, 2012 at 6:53 AM

Gulliver is kind of interesting and would be a neat name. But I think you’re right that it won’t work everywhere. Out here in the small town Midwest, I can see a serious teasing potential. (I can say it because I live here, there are many who would have no idea that the book existed and wouldn’t read it if they knew about it).

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