Editor’s note: this post was originally published on October 20, 2008, and substantially revised and republished on October 15, 2012.
He’s regal and brainy, but friendly and upbeat, too.
Thanks to Lola for suggesting Leo as our Baby Name of the Day.
Leo can be a short form of a dozen names, from the obscure to the ordinary. There’s a long list of formal choices here, from an ancient king to a saint to a Jolie-Pitt and a Hollywood leading man.
But there’s no need to pen Leonidas or Leonardo on your son’s birth certificate. Leo stands alone very nicely, and always has. He’s never left the US Top 1000, and ranked in the Top 100 from the 1890s into the 1930s. It is a safe bet that’s he’s headed back in that direction. In 2007, Leo ranked #238. Five years later, he’s up to #167.
Anyone who’s read their horoscope probably knows that Leo means lion. It’s derived from the Latin leonem, probably from Hebrew – labi – or possibly Egyptian – labai. The link between leo the lion and Leo the ruler stems both from actual bearers of the name who held power, but also from an older sense of the word. From the Middle Ages on, if you were called a lion, it was typically a positive comment about your bravery – think of King Richard the Lionheart – though it could also imply that you were ruthless.
Pope Saint Leo the Great held office in the 400s. Among other accomplishments – centralizing the church, straightening out some thorny theological matters – this Leo managed to convince Attila the Hun to turn back and spare Rome. Legend has it that Leo intimidated the Hun, possibly with an otherworldly vision; historians counter that the warrior’s armies were already stretched thin as they neared Rome and Attila was happy to withdraw. It was quite the feat in any case. A dozen future popes would adopt the name, most recently in the 1800s.
Leo was also popular among monarchs, especially with Byzantine emperors and Armenian kings.
Among the best known Leos are:
- The MGM lion has started countless films since 1924. The original cat was actually named Slats; not until 1957 did they employ a spokeslion named Leo, but he’s been roaring ever since.
- The creative force of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy lends the name a literary, brainy air.
- The name picks up rock star cool thanks to guitar innovator Leo Fender – born Clarence Leonidas.
- Children’s author and illustrator Leo Lionni takes the name in a different direction.
- Leo is undeniably a throwback, so you’ll find characters like Jerry Seinfeld’s eccentric Uncle Leo.
He’s popular throughout the English-speaking world, as well as Switzerland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden. Celebrity chef Mario Batali gave the name to a son. So did actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Barden.
It’s a perfect name for a son born in the summertime. But even if he arrives in the chill of winter, it’s a friendly choice, powerful and approachable at once.