Holly: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on November 7, 2012

My Holly Tree My Holly Tree (Photo credit: cindy47452)

She’s a seasonal nature name with a rock ‘n’ roll edge.

Thanks to Holly for suggesting her name as our Baby Name of the Day.

The short story is that Holly is a nature name, borrowed from the evergreen, with its glossy leaves and red berries.  Holly has long been a traditional Christmas decoration, and was sacred in pre-Christian Europe.  Seasonal carols reference the plant.  There’s “The Holly and the Ivy,” and we’ve been called to “Deck the Halls” with boughs of holly, too.

The Old English holegn eventually became holin, and has been holly since the 1400s.  It ultimately means to prick, as the leaves are spiky.

Holly first charts as a girls’ name in 1936, entering the US Top 1000 at #981.  She rose to the Top 300 by 1947, and was a Top 100 favorite from 1969 into the early 1990s.  It would be easy to call Holly a modern nature name pick, borrowed straight from the plant for December-born daughters.

Except that Holly also charted as a boys’ name just a few times in the nineteenth century.

That’s almost certainly because Holly is also a surname:

  • The related Hollis is a surname for someone living near a grove of the treesand has a long history of use as a given name.
  • The Gaelic MacCuilinn is usually Anglicized to McCullen – but sometimes it is translated, to Holly.

The most famous bearer of the surname was born Charles Holley.  You know him as Buddy.  He died tragically at the age of 22, but his impact on music was huge.  Among the first inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Holly’s influence is considerable.

Today it is hard to imagine a boy answering to the name, thanks to:

  • Holly Hobbie, the real-life woman who created a fictional character by the same name.  Hobbie was born Denise Holly Ulinskas in 1944.  Hobbie is her married name.  She introduced the character in the 1960s.  The fictional Hobbie is a girl in a patchwork dress and an over-sized bonnet.  From American Greetings cards, the illustration became a rag doll, a novel, and more recently, a Nick Jr. movie and DVD featuring a rebooted Holly in jeans instead of her traditional garb.  Hobbie doesn’t get credit for making the name popular, but the attention didn’t hurt.
  • Actor Jack Palance was ahead of the curve when he gave the name to his daughter in 1950.
  • Audrey Hepburn played Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  While it isn’t mentioned in the movie, the Truman Capote original gives her full name as Holiday.
  • Actresses Holly Hunter, Holly Robinson Peete, and Holly Marie Combs have kept the name in the spotlight.
  • Fictional characters abound, including Gwyneth Paltrow’s Holly Holiday on Glee.

What still has me stumped is her rise in the first place.  It’s clear that Breakfast at Tiffany’s helped tipped her into the Top 100, but Holly had been on a steady rise for decades.

Today, she’s still popular in the UK and Australia, but in the US, Holly has faded, falling to #426 in 2011.  She’s squarely in mom name territory today.  But somehow, I don’t think she’s out of contention as a child’s name.  With Lily and her botanical cousins so much in vogue, Holly might seem like a nature name possibility that stands out, but still fits in, for a daughter, especially one born around the winter holidays.

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