Name of the Day: Arlo

by appellationmountain on January 31, 2009

Oh boy! On the heels of Philo, here’s another interesting ends-in-o choice.

Thanks to JNE and Christina for suggesting the surprisingly down-to-earth Arlo for Name of the Day.

Even if you’re more into Britney than bluegrass, you’ve probably heard of Arlo Guthrie, the American folk singer. Tune into many a radio station on Thanksgiving Day, and you’ll hear Guthrie’s famous “Alice’s Restaurant.” The song lasts for 18 minutes, 34 seconds. And yes, his Alice is a real person – but she runs an art gallery.

He’s not the first Arlo, either. The novelist, poet and newspaper editor Arlo Bates was born in Maine in 1850. South Dakotan Arlo Olson won the Medal of Honor for his service during World War II. A handful of other Arlos appear throughout the 20th century.

It seems likely that the writer’s reputation encouraged the use of the name – it first charted in the US Top 1000 in 1900, and peaked at #667 in 1915. But the inspiration for that early Arlo remains elusive.

The name has several possible origins:

  • Some suggest that Arlo comes from an Italian version of Charles. Carlo is, of course, the better known variant.
  • Others trace Arlo to the English surname Harlow. This tracks with Arlo Bates’ background, but his mother’s maiden name was Thaxter. If Arlo comes from Harlow, the meaning is debated still – rocky hill or fortified hill are among the options.
  • There are numerous references to barberry trees, with the suggestion that arlo is the Spanish. Maybe so, but bĂ©rbero seems like the more obvious translation.

But the most intriguing possibility is that Arlo comes from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. Arlo Hill is “the best and fairest hill” and is surrounded by “faire forrests.” While experts believe Spenser was inspired by a real location, you won’t find Arlo on the map. In fact, it isn’t clear what inspired Spenser to use the term.

This brings us back to Arlo Bates again. Accounts suggest that his father, Niran, was impressively well read. It’s all guesswork, but there’s reason to believe that Niran would’ve read The Faerie Queen. After all, the poem inspired plenty of parents looking for high-minded baby names – see Clarinda and Gloriana.

Arlo was in limited but steady use right through 1944. While he’s virtually unknown in recent years, the singer keeps him familiar. And he’s undeniably easy to spell and pronounce.

With Milo coming in at #548 and plenty of baby Theodores answering to Theo, Arlo starts to sound positively mainstream.

Previous post:

Next post: