Duncan Toys Company
Image via Wikipedia

He’s a stylish Scottish heritage choice with literary and playful overtones.

Thanks to Liann for suggesting her son’s name as our Baby Name of the Day: Duncan.

Duncan brings to mind three things: an ill-fated ruler, Yo-Yos, and cake.

Let’s start with the Bard. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tragedy, using characters borrowed from Scottish history. The first King Donnchadh reigned in the eleventh century, and was succeeded by Macbeth in 1040. That’s where fiction kicks in. Duncan wasn’t elderly during his reign, and he died in battle. Macbeth was, by contemporary accounts, a capable ruler.

We remember something different: a skilled, but overly ambitious, lieutenant, egged on by his equally ambitious wife and a trio of cackling witches to commit regicide and frame the king’s servants.

A second Scottish king wore the name later in the eleventh century. Donnchadh appears centuries earlier as a given name, and was in early use as a surname, too. Donn refers to the color brown, and chadh comes from the word for warrior, or possibly head – Plenty of distinguished Scotsmen have worn the name. In the eighteenth century, Adam Duncan served as an admiral in the Royal Navy. After defeating the Dutch, he was created a viscount.

Then there’s Donald Duncan, the American entrepreneur who helped put a Yo-Yo in every toy box. Duncan Toy was bought out by a larger company, but the Yo-Yos still bear his name.

Duncan Hines was a real person, a traveling salesman who tired of eating subpar food while on the road. He decided to compile a restaurant rating guide – a forerunner of today’s Zagat’s. Hines’ name became synonymous with quality, delicious food, and so later in life he entered into licensing agreements for bread and cake mix.

There’s also:

  • Modern dance innovator Isadora Duncan;
  • The Lemony Snicket series features siblings named Isadora and Duncan;
  • In the Dune books and movies, Duncan Idaho is a skilled warrior and weapons master;
  • Duncan MacLeod, hero of Highlander: The Series. The 1986 movie did wonderful things for the given name of its hero, Connor MacLeod, and Duncan climbed throughout the 1990s while the show aired;
  • A very different television reference is Sandy Duncan, star of late 80s sitcom The Hogan Family;
  • Remember Duncan Sheik’s hit single from 1996? “Barely Breathing” was a major hit, and earned Sheik a Grammy nomination;
  • Your son might be thrilled to share his name with one of the many engines on Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends;
  • Director Duncan Jones is the firstborn son of music icon David Bowie.

There are more references – a He-Man character, a Paul Simon song – but it is also tough to overcome Duncan’s similarity to the verb dunk – as in Dunkin’ Donuts.

Maybe that’s why Duncan has never really caught on. Fueled by Dune and Highlander, he reached as high as #386 in 1998. While he’s been in the US Top 1000 nearly every year, he’s pretty rare. He currently stands at #732.

Add it up, and Duncan is an unusual name that feels familiar, rich with references to literature and Scottish history, but with enough pop culture references to keep him from feeling heavy. Today he’d feel quite current, but still unexpected – an appealing combination.

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. With six children, Satran & Rosenkratz’ book Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana: What To Name Your Baby Now has been my favorite resource for coming up with names for our children. Now that I’m pregnant with our seventh, I thought to come see if they had a newer version of this book available and found The Baby Name Bible! I ordered it immediately and wasn’t disappointed.

    In their above-mentioned book, the authors didn’t deal with providing a dictionary of baby names — in this book they do, along with meanings and origins of names. Their dictionary is comprehensive (but not OVERLY so, so that it’s hard to wade through the names), it’s fresh, it’s interesting and it’s funny. But also included in this book — and what I liked about BJJMM — are their category lists; lists that help provide the FEEL of the name (things like “If you like Adam, You Might Also Like …,” “Color Names,” “Cool Bible Names” and “Star Baby Names.”

    This book gets a high recommendation from me.