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.