Rowan: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on July 16, 2014

Autumn leaves - Rowan

Today’s post was originally published on February 2, 2010.  It was substantially revised and re-posted on July 16, 2014.

Today’s choice is a nature name with a distinctly Irish lilt.

Thanks to Kelly for suggesting Rowan as our Baby Name of the Day.

Is this a nature name or a surname name?  Better for boys or girls?


Ahem.  Let’s start with the surname.

Like Riley and Kennedy, Rowan has a long history of use as an Irish surname. The original would’ve been Ó Ruadháin, from ruadh – red – and related to a first name, Ruadán, born by a sixth century saint as well as a minor mythological figure.

Rooney was the more common Anglicization, but an impressive who’s who list of Rowans includes:

  • The nineteenth century’s Archibald Hamilton Rowan inherited beaucoup bucks but ended up a radical anyhow, advocating for Irish liberty and the rights of the poor, in a media-friendly fashion. He once wielded a shillelagh in a Dublin dining club to make a point.
  • Engineer-turned-philanthropist Henry Rowan. A New Jersey university is named in his honor.
  • Civil War admiral Stephen Clegg Rowan.
  • A smattering of actors, politicians, musicians, journalists, and athletes.

Rowan is rare as a given name until very recently.  Yes, there’s comedian Rowan Atkinson and yes, that’s his given name.  There’s also a retired Archbishop of Canterbury, so perhaps Rowan got an earlier start in the UK.

Then again, a handful of boys have been named Rowan in the US nearly every year – yet another case of surnames promoted to the first place, often to pass on a family name.

Now, to the nature angle.  This is a huge category in recent decades.  If girls can answer to Laurel and Willow, Rowan is an obvious choice.

The tree takes its name from the color red, via an Old Norse word referring to the color of the tree’s berries.

Traditionally, Rowan trees were considered quite powerful.  The wood fends off witches and vampires, protects ships and cattle and houses.  Their berries could help tell the future.  When Anne Rice named the supernatural powerhouse at the heart of 1990’s The Witching Hour, she chose Rowan for the most talented of the Mayfair witches.

Rice’s novel almost certainly sparked interest in Rowan for girls – the name rises steadily after 1990.  But it’s less clear why Rowan caught on for boys – though actor Atkinson attracted a lot of US attention in the 90s, too.

The name broke into the US Top 1000 for boys in 1999, possibly just because of our affection for Irish surname names, and that great two-syllable, ends-with-n construction.

For girls, credit Brooke Shields’ firstborn daughter, Rowan Francis.  Shield and Chris Henchy became parents in May 2003.  That same year, Rowan debuted for girls at #955.

Since then:

  • Rowan has climbed to #295 for boys, or 1175 newborns in 2013.
  • For girls, the name ranks #425, which translates to 704 girls in 2013.

Despite fears that this name is trending pink, the numbers show Rowan holding steady for boys.

And I think this one truly does work for both genders – in terms of sound, origins, and meaning.  It’s a strong name for a daughter, but an equally enduring choice for a son.

What do you think of Rowan?  Will this one go girl?  Or is Rowan just that perfect gender neutral pick?

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