Rowan: Baby Name of the Day

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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  1. Lilac says

    I went to school with a female Rowan; in Scotland the first syllable is pronounced to rhyme with ‘how’ rather than ‘owe’, which I prefer (there’s a folk ballad ‘O Rowan Tree’ too, which is definitely ROW-an not ROWE-an). I like it a lot for both boys and girls, but wouldn’t use it because I don’t think I’d be able to insist on my preferred pronunciation outside of Scotland.

  2. Thalia says

    My daughter’s name is Rowan, and we get so many compliments on it! I found the name thanks to Brooke Shields naming her daughter Rowan.

  3. Dave says

    My daughter’s name is Rowan, and she’s 4. She hates people calling her Rowan and insists on Rosie because someone told her ‘Rowan is a boys name’. It’s sad because I much prefer Rowan. I have to admit we did get some disparaging looks from relatives who have an ‘Owen’, but that’s their problem. Rowan is a beautiful name for a girl.

    • appellationmountain says

      My son is Alexander, and until he was 5, he answered mostly to Aly. Then one of his kindergarten classmates told him Aly was a girl’s name and now he insists on being called Alex. The kicker? Aly was informed about his “girl name” by a boy named Delaney.

      Rowan rocks. Here’s hoping she reclaims it eventually.

  4. hyzen says

    Well, I love Rowan for boys, and I can try to be objective and see that it makes a nice name for girls too, but I admit Rowan on girls does bother me–it was my top boy choice for years (even my husband was on board with it–a rare feat!) but then it seemed to be crossing over and we didn’t feel we could use it for our son. I blame Brooke Shields and Anne Rice for sure! If I could be convinced it would remain well used for both sexes (like Morgan, Taylor, etc.) then we still may have used it for our son, but because of the way these things tend to go once they get picked up by girls, we did not feel confident about it. The fact that it is now essentially unisex in usage also made it feel more modern to me than it used to, which I did not like. We love the name we did choose, but I’m still mourning Rowan a bit too, as you can tell….

    • cheryl says

      I loved reading your reply…I named my son Rowan and I just love it, but do have serious doubts due to the fact that it is considered a girls name by so many. Reading your post makes me feel better about my choice, because it is truly is a great name for a strong boy. I liked the name owen and the name ronin, my husband like Rowan so it was an easy pic.

  5. Lillian says

    My daughter’s name is Rowan, and i have received many compliments on the name and have known two ladies to name their daughters the same after i introduced them.

  6. rowaninternational says

    Well, I like Rowan on a girl for it’s my name.
    It’s quite rare and that’s what I love about it. When I was younger I didn’t like it, but I’ve learned to see the beauty in it. It’s strength!

  7. Sebastiane says

    I love Rowan for a boy, I also really like Rohan, but like Rowan more for its tree associations. I must admit, that I do kinda like Rowan on a girl as well.

  8. says

    Love on a boy. Like on a girl. Reasons for use on both, although on a girl, I tend to think of the 70’s horror, The Wicker Man.

    I have yet to run across a Kiwi female Rowan (that I can recall) but I’m sure it will happen. Peoples’ first associations tend to be more often than not, Mr Bean/Blackadder aka Rowan Atkinson.

    It was also the name of my first guy I really liked in high school so there’s a sentimental quality there too.

    I like Rohan more so I used that instead.

  9. JNE says

    Just a thought, but the boys’ sound-alike Owen took off in the 90s (going from a rank in the 200s to solidly top 100). Perhaps parents were looking at -owen sounding names and found Rowan?

  10. Names4Real says

    Brooke picked the middle name/spelling after her grandfather, who she was close to and I think I read that he died right before Rowan was born.

  11. photoquilty says

    This is interesting. I always thought that Rowan was a girl’s name. Then on Y!A all the “experts” maintain that it’s a boy’s name that’s crossing over. So I believed that. But I still think it’s a great romantic name for a girl. I’m happy to have read this post and see that it goes either way. However, I’d love to know why Brooke Sheilds’s daughter’s middle name is spelled with an I instead of an E. Were they actually hoping for a boy?

    • appellationmountain says

      To be honest, I think “crossing over” is something of a myth. It’s just not all that clear that once a name is adopted for girls, it goes out of use for boys. But more on that in a future post.

    • appellationmountain says

      And yeah, I do find the Francis spelling odd … not sure if she’s ever explained it. I love the combo, but I wish Francis was spelled with an e.

  12. British American says

    In 1980 my Mum almost called me Rowan. I think she was attracted to the botanical aspect of the name for girls. I’m really glad she didn’t pick Rowan, as our last name was Atkinson – so that would have been awkward when the male Rowan Atkinson became so famous. I knew a Rowena when I was about 8 and I preferred that name, as it sounded more girly. And then I went on to name my daughter Rose, so I prefer that Ro- name for girls. And maybe Ronan for a boy.

    I do prefer Rowan for a girl over Madison and Taylor etc. Though in general I prefer a name where the gender of the person is immediately clear.

    • appellationmountain says

      I came across Rowanne listed as a spelling alternative for a girl in more than one place, including the venerable But to me that’s kind of like Ryanne – it implies that the emphasis shifts to the second syllable. (ry AN, rhymes with Diane, rather than RY an, rhymes with Brian.)


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