Thanks to Rebecca for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
At first glance, the baby name Axel looks like it might be a cousin to the popular classic Alexander.
Instead, the Old Testament gave us Absalom, son to King David. The name means my father is peace, but his story didn’t turn out that way.
Absalom was charming and handsome – and trouble, too.
He rebelled against his father, raising an army and declaring himself king.
Things looked bleak, but David’s troops triumphed in battle, and the beloved son lost his life.
That lends the name Absalom a certain negative energy.
Even if you don’t know the tale, the name that has become a lament, a synonym for a wayward son, thanks to William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize-winning novel Absalom, Absalom! and a host of literary references.
Absalom and Absalon are found in Scandinavia by the twelfth century.
Axel is simply the popular Scandinavian form of the Biblical Absalom.
Absalom became Apsel in Danish, which isn’t much of a leap at all.
Variations like Axelen and Axelin appear, too.
Whisper it down the alley, and eventually the name reaches its current form.
So how about axles?
On a car, they’re the poles that hold the wheels.
As a noun, axle shares roots with axis – no relation to Absalom at all. It’s a familiar word, and one that lends Axel a sort of gears-and-motors feel.
Back to Scandinavia.
Remember Marie Antoinette, the ill-fated French queen? Then you might think of Axel von Fersen, the Swedish nobleman and military officer turned diplomat. He became her dear friend, and helped the royal family attempt to escape the revolution.
Rumor had it that the queen and von Fersen were more than just friends. Hollywood loves the hint of romance and scandal. Actors have played the part of Fersen in movies from the earliest days to recent years. Jamie Dornan played the part in the 2006 movie, opposite Kirsten Dunst in the towering wig.
Axel von Fersen was just one historical figure to wear the name.
In 1864, Jules Verne gave the name to Otto’s nephew in Journey to the Center of the Earth. The 1959 big screen adaptation re-named him Alec, but the novel has been widely read over the years.
Norwegian figure skater Axel Paulsen became the first to execute the notoriously difficult figure skating jump that bears his name, in an international competition way back in 1882.
BY the NUMBERS
The name appeared in the US Top 1000 most popular names from the 1880s into the 1910s before fading.
Maybe it reflects a swell of immigration from those countries.
In any case, the popularity of the name Axel peaked around 1886.
The name fell into disuse afterwards, remaining rare into the 1980s.
The name remained obscure, given to just three or four dozen boys a year.
Until Beverly Hills Cop debuted, starring Eddie Murphy at the height of his popularity.
First drafted in 1977, the orignal screenplay named the character Elly Axel, and he hailed from East LA.
Multiple re-writes later, it became the 1984 smash hit with a Detroit cop out of place in Los Angeles, named Axel Foley. The name reinforced the Motor City connection. The instrumental title track bears the main character’s name – and “Axel F” became a breakout hit, too.
Foley returned to the screen for sequels in 1987 and 1994.
No question the earliest bump in the name’s usage is down to the movie. In 1983, just 29 boys were given the name. By 1986, there were 56.
Then came Guns N’ Roses.
The Los Angeles hard rock band released their debut album in 1987. Appetite for Destruction hit #1. More albums – and hit single after hit single – followed.
GNR frontman Axl Rose was born William Bruce Rose. Believe it or not, he got his start singing in a church choir in Lafayette, Indiana. After escaping a troubled childhood, he moved to Los Angeles and formed a band called AXL. He liked the name so much, he eventually took it for himself.
The charismatic frontman was everywhere in the late 1980s.
No surprise that the one-two pop culture punch – Foley plus Rose – pushed the name higher.
By the year 1989, the baby name Axel had returned to the US Top 1000 at #951.
The name didn’t immediately soar into the most popular names.
Instead, it took a while. As of 1999, the baby name Axel ranked a modest #799.
But it had transformed in parents’ minds, from a curious Scandi import to an edgy, current possibility for a son.
- Argentine singer Axel launched his career in 1999.
- The Matrix Reloaded cast included an Axel in 2003.
- Video game Kingdom Hearts used the name for a character, as did Twisted Metal. Both were popular enough to influence parents.
- From 2009 to 2018, sitcom The Middle gave us Axl Heck, oldest brother in the family.
- There’s a character named Axel Finke in the extended How to Train Your Dragon universe – but given the series’ Viking backstory, how could there not be?
- Disney Channel’s Sofia the First included a Prince Axel.
- Celebs like Will Ferrell and Fergie and Josh Duhamel, Seth Meyers, and Kaitlin Olson chose the name for their sons.
In 2018, the baby name Axel entered the US Top 100. As of 2021, it’s popularity rank is #76.
TRADITIONAL TOUGH GUY
That popularity rank makes Axel mainstream. And yet, it retains an interesting set of qualities.
On the one hand, Axel is a cognate of the Biblical Absalom, a traditional and time-tested choice.
At the same time, though, a mix of sound and famous figures makes the baby name Axel modern and edgy. The letter X ups the cool factor, too.
A modern, edgy sound combined with deep roots? No wonder this traditional tough guy name has caught on in a big way.
What do you think of the baby name Axel?
First published March 19, 2014, this post was updated and re-posted on July 31, 2019 and again on January 18, 2023.