Captain America, Harley Davidson Chopper feaut...
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He’s an English surname with a nature vibe, but it’s hard to hear this one and think of anything other than the open road.

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

Up until 1901, Harley was just a surname, derived from a place name. There’s debate as to whether the first syllable referred to bunnies – hare – or rocks – hær. It may also have been used as an Anglicized form of the Gaelic Ó Fearghail. Either way, it was fairly common, appearing in the Top 200 given names for boys born in US in the late nineteenth century.

Then in 1901, childhood friends William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson went to work on a motor-bicycle. Arthur’s brother Walter pitched in, and while their first effort couldn’t get up the Milwaukee hills, by 1904, their next generation motorcycle raced in a local competition. The first bikes were for sale a few months later. Police departments bought them up, and the military followed during World War I. The real story is that Harley-Davidson survived the Great Depression, one of the few motorcycle manufacturers left standing.

By then, Harley had long since fallen out of favor as a baby name. From the 1950s into the 1970s, motorcycle gangs were much in the popular imagination. You couldn’t name your kiddo Harley anymore than you could name him Thuglife today. And then the bikes hit a bump in the 70s, loosing ground to imports.

Then it changed again.

By the 1990s, Harleys had become part-Americana, part-Easy Rider. As the hog earned his place in history, parents forgot that Wyatt and Billy ended their drug-fueled road trip in flames.

For boys, Harley fits with surname choices Bailey and Riley, as well as the preppy Charlie, recently back in fashion. He now stands at #571.

The real story has been Harley for girls, where she’s a mash-up of Hailey and Carly. The similar Marley has also done well for girls in recent decades. In 1991, Harley entered the girls’ US Top 100 at #677, peaked at #312 in 2003, and now stands at #423.

Namesakes cross gender lines, too. In the early twentieth century, there’s Vice Admiral Harley Christy, who served the US Navy during the Spanish-American War and World War I. Toss in a handful of athletes and politicians, and it is easy to argue that Harley is as masculine as Harold or Harvey.

More recently, Harley Jane Kozak has been a popular soap opera actress. She was born Susan, and her television career peaked in the 80s, before Harley caught on for girls.

Despite Harley’s growing use for girls, the name still wears well on a son. How could a name so deadly wedded to the raw power of the iconic American motorcycle be anything other than all-boy?

Therein lies Harley’s real problem. Like Chanel or Bentley, you’re banking on the brand retaining its luster. If Harley is found on your family tree, never fear – he’ll be meaningful even if the company goes kaput. Otherwise, proceed with caution.

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. I wouldn’t be so hasty to dismiss Harley. It has meaning for you, and I’ve always found that I could embrace Nevaeh or Jaxson if it turned out there was a compelling story.

  1. I met a toddler earlier this year named Harley David. The last name started with Har- too, but the syllable rhymed with air. Cute boy, but the names together seemed groan-inducing rather than Americana-cool.

  2. Funny, I’m reading this while watching Sons of Anarchy.

    My dad was a biker back in the day, so this name makes me think of him. We have a Harley Davidson dealership here, so the name is somewhat popular, though seen as lower class.

    Overall, ditto Julie.

    1. That’s great, Panya! And there is something about naming your child after a motorcycle that isn’t terribly sophisticated. But if it is a family name, that’s VERY different.

  3. I don’t really care for the “arl” sound – so Harley, along with Carla/Carly, Darla, Marley – all sound a bit unattractive to my ears. It may just be the way the sound feels in my mouth…

    At any rate, Harley is all brand name to me.

    1. I don’t care for Darla or Carly, either – I think you’re right about the -arl sound.

      1. Haha, Charlotte has an “arl” sound, but I agree with you on Darla, Marley, and Carly. I’ve sometimes wished that people here in North America said my name in a more British way like they did in India, where the “r” gets softened and sounds less nasal.

        1. But I do like Marlo, Marley, and Arlo, as well as Charlotte. So maybe it isn’t really the -arl …

  4. i love the bikes but can’t really see the name on a child of either gender, it seems too harsh for a girl but weirdly too feminine for a boy, possibly because it makes me think of the batman villainess harley quinn 🙂

  5. I really don’t like Harley on a boy, unless it’s a family name. I know a Harley who’s about 16/17, his family is quite “rustic.” They’re loud, abusive and more likely to have half a dozen cars in various states of disrepair, than a chopper. I hate the term, but Harley = redneck.

    As for girls, the Har- prefix feels really masculine and harsh to me. Harley is just another bell-tone, surname-ish -lee name. There’s no one accepted way to spell any of them… (Harlei, Harleigh, Harlee, Harllee, Harli, Harlie, Harly, Harlea) and they’re much more common than the parents think. I’m really bored with this style of name.

  6. Wow, I didnt know this name was popular enough to be on the SS rankings. I have never met a boy or a gilr named Harley.. however i have run into several “cool” people who have dogs or cats named Harley. It rings all motercycle and born to be wild to me … and should probably remain a name for your mastiff instead of a child.

  7. For me, i’ll always associate it with the motorcycle, even though I know it was a boy name long before that. Can’t see it on a girl at all… far too masculine.

    1. For what it is worth, I crashed a motorcycle my senior year of high school and answered to Harley for two years. The guy I dated right after high school even introduced me to his mom as Harley. I loved it – but I cannot imagine being called Harley at the age of 37.

  8. Being from Milwaukee, it was fun to read this post. I could never name a baby Harley — the company is in the news here all the time! I like the sound though, and can totally understand its appeal.

  9. my favorite BNOTD so far! harley was my grandfather’s name and I would love to use it for our next child- male or female. Any reader suggestions on middle names? If we have a boy, I’m thinking I like it better in the middle name spot, actually. Our last name rhymes with Braxton.

    1. Now that is a very fortunate name to find on your family tree! Assuming you don’t live in Milwaukee …

      For a girl, I’d say classic, or possibly vintage, and strongly feminine for the middle: Harley Elisabeth, Harley Clementine, Harley Celeste, Harley Madeleine, Harley Catherine. As I said, I’ve answered to Harley and it was pure fun. But I wouldn’t want to be a grown-up Harley. (Though I’d feel differently, I think, if it was a family name. And not everyone feels the same way I do.)

      For a boy, if Harley was in the middle spot, you could put almost anything in the first place …