Duncan: Baby Name of the DayDuncan brings to mind basketballs and doughnuts – but also Scotland and Shakespeare.

Thanks to Whitney for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.

Duncan: Way Back

Kings aplenty have answered to this name, as early as the 600s. An eighth century Saint Dúnchad might sometimes be recorded as Duncan, too.

And then there’s King Donnchadh. He reigned in the eleventh century. His successor? Macbeth, in 1040. That’s where fiction kicks in. Donnchadh wasn’t elderly, and he died in battle. Contemporary accounts paint Macbeth as a reasonable ruler. There’s no treachery mentioned.

Until Shakespeare.

Duncan: Three Witches

In Macbeth, the prophecies of three witches set the play in motion. Their predictions unleash Macbeth’s political ambitions, and those of his wife. Murder and madness follow, though order is restored by the end.

Shakespeare wasn’t the first to impose a twisted tale on a handful of historical figures. Holinshed’s Chronicles, first published in 1577, detailed British history over many a century. The Bard was borrowing from the not-quite-historical account.

The Chronicles and the playwright crafted the play we know so well: a skilled, but overly ambitious, lieutenant, egged on by his equally ambitious wife and a trio of cackling witches, commits regicide and frames the king’s servants. Of course, the name Duncan belongs to the victim, not the villain.

Duncan: Warrior

It comes from elements meaning brown – think dun, as in dark – and warrior or battle.

There’s a later king of Scotland by the name, and it’s fairly common as a surname, too. It’s ranked in the US Top 1000 every almost year since 1880, though it’s rarely made the Top 500.

All of this makes the name a fitting choice for a Highlander character. The fantasy action-adventure about an immortal warrior has covered multiple movies and television series, plus novels and comic books. The original Highlander is Connor; Duncan first takes over for him in the first 1990s television series.

Duncan: 20th Century

Over the last century or so, a variety of other images attached to the name.

The yo-yo has existed since at least a few centuries BC, but Donald Duncan made it a staple of American childhood beginning in the 1930s. They’re still manufactured under the brand name, nearly a century later.

When traveling salesman Duncan Hines couldn’t get a decent meal on the road, he authored one of the first travel guides to help others do just that. Eventually, the cake mixes that bore his name became far more famous, and are still sold in nearly every American grocery store today.

You might also think of:

  • A character in Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune, who goes on to appear in all six of the Dune novels.
  • Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik.
  • A character from A Series of Unfortunate Events, brother to Isadora. (Which makes it a reference to the legendary twentieth century dancer, Isadora Duncan.)
  • David Bowie gave this name to his son in 1971 – though he was known as Zowie for years.
  • The on-again, off-again boyfriend on Veronica Mars, with drama and teenage heartache aplenty.

As for Dunkin’ Donuts and thoughts of basketball, well, that’s from the German dunken – to dip. There’s no relation between the name and the verb, but the sound is the same.

And then came 1997, when the first overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft was Tim Duncan. He went on to play 19 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, becoming a two-time NBA MVP in the process, along with arms full of other honors and awards.

Duncan: By the Numbers

The name peaked in the late 1990s, at a moment it was associated with the hoop star and the indie rocker. Names like Dylan and Devin ranked in the Top 100 at the time, making it a similar-but-different choice.

Overall, the name feels upbeat and accessible, but without sacrificing gravitas. After all, it’s as literary as it is athletic, as tied to history as it is to the humble yo-yo.

If you’re looking for names instantly recognized but seldom heard, easily spelled and pronounced, then this might belong on your list.

What do you think of Duncan?

This post was published originally on August 1, 2012. After substantial revision, it was re-posted on February 13, 2019.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. This is my last name and I love it. I will not be changing it if I ever get married and I would consider using it as a middle name for my future sons or daughters.

  2. I love Duncan, and have recently felt that Ducky (think “Pretty in Pink”) would be an adorable nickname for a little Duncan.

  3. We just named our latest baby (kid #8, boy#3) Duncan. I figured that with its consistent presence, it was an un-dated named–like, it’s always been around but never spiked, so it’s not connected with any particular era? But older folks are nonplussed by it. The people our age, though, seem to really like it. Silly old people. 🙂

    We were stymied by the nickname issue too. Our Duncan is delightfully roly-poly, tempting my mom to call him “Dumpling” and my husband, “Chunkin.” Yes. Mildly horrifying.

    Luckily his middle names are Tatsui Tyndale, so for short, we just call him “Tate”. It fits his bubbly cheerfulness. 🙂

  4. I love the name Duncan – I think it’s clunky-cool rather than just clunky.

    It also sounds very positive to me, because it has the word “can” in it.

    I’ve only ever seen Duncans nicknamed as Dunc, and not sure why that’s a huge problem, as it sounds very basketbally to me.

    Maybe because we don’t have Dunkin Donuts, but it doesn’t have any more teasing potential than the next name as far as I can see.

  5. Thank you so much for doing this one! 🙂 It is really high up on my list right now. I especially love the Last of the Mohicans reference. My only hang up with the name is the same as Megalady. I just can’t find a great nn. I’ve heard Dunn or Dunc, but I’m not sure I love those. But I love the name anyway 🙂 To me, it has a lot of spunk.

  6. I’ve considered Duncan before, as a nod to a family surname, but he’s not gotten very far up my list.

    I’ve tried to think of potential nicknames (love nicknames, diminutives, and pet names). The best I can come up with is Duke, which is kinda cute but also perhaps too macho/country/dog-like… Not sure.

    I still like Duncan but he’s one I probably won’t use.

  7. I kinda love it… the first thing I think of is Highlander (ohhhh Adrian Paul, you dreamboat, you) but Veronica Mars is one of all-time favorite shows! There should be more Duncans!