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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