British parents are wild about the baby name Harry. It’s cozy, traditional, cool – a brother for Jack, an alternative to Charlie. American families haven’t quite caught on. At least not yet.
Thanks to Charlotte for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
HENRY, BUT MAKE IT COZY
Many will recognize Harry as a traditional nickname for Henry. But it’s not obvious why.
We know that Henry has Germanic roots. The original form was Heimrich, then Heinrich. It means “home ruler.” The meaning of the name Harry is identical.
The Normans invaded England in the eleventh century. They brought Norman French names with them, which often had Germanic roots.
Pronounce Henri in French today, and it sounds almost like on ree.
It quickly became smoothed out to Harry in medieval England, as the Norman Conquest took hold and names changed accordingly.
Now Henry – and especially Harry – sound as British as can be.
That British vibe has lots to do with Prince Henry Charles Albert David, second son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, born in 1984 to world-wide applause. It was quickly announced that the new prince would be called Harry.
With red hair and a reputation as a fun-loving, relaxed member of the royal family, the prince was a favorite with the public from early days. And the world has always called him Prince Harry.
Many a royal sibling fades from the spotlight, but the opposite is true. Prince Harry’s marriage to American actor Meghan Markle, the couples’ struggles within the royal family, and their eventual decision to leave England behind for a life in the US has attracted much attention. The births of their children, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor and Lilibet Diana Mountbatten-Windsor, have also attracted headlines.
Now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the couple is likely to remain in the spotlight, along with Prince Harry’s preferred name.
HARRISON, HAROLD, and MORE
Of course, not every Harry is a Henry.
The baby name Harry has ranked as an independent given name in the US from 1880 into the 1910s.
It can also be short for Harrison, Harris, and Harold, to name just three. Maybe Horace? Sanskrit offers us Hari, a name related to the Hindu god Vishnu, which potentially makes Harry a culture-spanning choice, too.
As for just-Harrys?
- 33rd president of the United States, Harry Truman, was named for his maternal uncle, Harrison Young.
- Harry Houdini might’ve taken his stage name from earlier magician Harry Kellar, or it might come from a nickname for his birth name, Ehrich – or Ehrie, for short.
- Harry Belafonte was a Harold, but Harry Connick Jr. is just Harry. (Well, he’s actually Joseph Harry Fowler Connick Jr. But close enough.)
- We think of San Francisco police inspector Harry Callahan as just Harry, from 1971’s wildly successful Dirty Harry to the four sequels that followed. But the character’s full name is Harold Francis Callahan. Even if you’re never seen a movie, chances are you can imagine a young Clint Eastwood threatening “Go ahead. Make my day.”
- Actors Harry Dean Stanton, Harry Anderson, and Harry Hamlin were all just plain Harry.
So it’s a mix.
I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY
Upbeat anthem “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was originally written for the Broadway musical Shuffle Along.
Much-revised – and almost jettisoned more than once – the song became a hit in 1921, and again when future president Harry Truman chose it for his campaign’s song in 1948.
We’ve mostly forgotten Shuffle Along, though it has a fascinating history. In brief, composed by Eubie Blake, it would become the first all-Black hit Broadway show. It helped usher in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s, launching the careers of many a performer, including Josephine Baker. A 2016 adaptation focused on the difficulties of bringing the show to Broadway in 1920s America, and the way it changed theater.
Odds are you know at least the refrain of the song.
Judy Garland covered it. So did lots of other famous singers.
It time stamps the name in the past, a sepia-toned antique.
And so it would take a solid century before the baby name Harry returned to its prominence from earlier days.
A century … and a few famous figures.
In June of 1997, the world learned all about young Harry Potter, an unfortunate orphan living with a truly awful uncle and aunt. But he’s really a wizard, destined to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, under the watchful eye of headmaster Albus Dumbledore.
And while they hope it’s not the case, from that very first book onward, it’s clear Harry’s also meant to eventually confront the dark wizard who killed his parents and almost conquered the entire Wizarding World, the self-styled Lord Voldemort.
The tale unfolds across seven bestselling books, which became eight equally successful movies. That’s not including countless related projects, from Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter in their theme parks to Halloween costumes to the Fantastic Beasts franchise.
BRITISH NICKNAME NAMES
Here’s the thing about the baby name Harry. Long before we’d ever heard of Hogwarts or Hermione Granger or Gryffindor House, English parents had embraced cozy, casual nickname names.
Harry ranked in the England & Wales Top 20 in 1997. Alfie, Billy, Max, Sam, and Joe were Top 100 picks, most of them gaining in use. Jake outranked Jacob; Charlie was slightly more popular than Charles; and Jack topped the charts at #1. No surprise that the baby name Harry outranked Henry by quite a bit.
Sometimes fictional characters boost a name. But quite often, they simply have the names that are already popular. For an English audience, the name Harry represented the latter.
In fact, future One Direction member Harry Styles was born in 1994, meaning that his given name was very much in step with 90s favorites.
Harry Styles entered The X Factor competition in 2010 as a solo artist, only to be paired with four other teenagers. Together, they became One Direction.
The group went on hiatus in 2016. While all five have since launched solo careers with some success, it’s Harry that has become the mega-star. In addition to best-selling albums and #1 songs, he’s branched out into acting. He won accolades for his part in 2017’s Dunkirk.
Since then, he’s even cameoed in The Eternals, setting him up to appear as Thanos’ brother Eros in future films. His next movie is Don’t Worry Darling, due out in late 2022.
A noted fashionista, he’s also the first man to appear solo on the cover of Vogue.
So if you thought Harry was your granddad’s name, Styles has done quite a bit to shake off the dust.
BY THE NUMBERS
In much of the English-speaking world, the baby name Harry remains quite popular. It’s a Top 20 choice in Ireland, as well as Top Ten in England and Wales. It’s a Top 100 favorite for most of the English-speaking world.
Except not the US.
Henry ranks #9 in the US as of 2021.
But the baby name Harry languishes at #722.
You’re far more likely to meet a Harrison.
The fictional hero and the successful singer haven’t changed parents’ opinions about Harry, at least not in the US.
One possible reason? Pronunciation. Some insist that Harry sounds too close to hairy, or just plain quarrel about exactly how to say it. The differences, however, are slight – and it hasn’t stopped Olivia from reaching the top of the charts.
So maybe that’s an opportunity.
As casual as Jack, as cozy as Charlie, Harry is a name that everyone knows but few families are choosing.
You could name your son Harrison – or Henry or Harold – and call him Harry as a nickname.
But it’s also an appealing possibility in full, a brother for Max or an alternative to Gus.
What do you think of the baby name Harry?
First published on June 17, 2010, this post was revised substantially and re-published on June 1, 2022.
When I was a kid, I went to camp with a group of brothers with the names Max, Sam, Harry, and Jack. These were very old fashioned names in the 1980s. Add to it that they had a very Jewish last name, and they sounded like old Jewish men, if you didn’t know them. However, three of those names are very popular these days. Poor Harry is so left out. I like the name, even if only because it reminds me of my first crush. 😉 We have a Max in our family, Sam is our son, and we toyed with John/Jack when I was pregnant with Sammy. IMO, Harry fits right in.
Your kids are SO cute !
and I forgot to say, I’m in the same boat with Aaron as you. It’s a lovely name, but it’s subject to major accent drama lol
Thanks so much. 🙂
English Kate says
Really interesting post and I love JNE’s link too. Alas it looks like poor Harry and Harriet for that matter will always be Hairy in many parts of the US – on that basis, I don’t think Harry will ever reach the dizzy heights of popularity that it has in the UK.
OK, this is taking things slightly beyond general name discussion – but there lives a greater nerd in me than name-nerd… it is linguistics-nerd and dialects are one of my areas of specific nerderificness. Soooo, in case anyone is interested, I found an isogloss map (very difficult to read because it’s small) with specific reference to the distinction of Mary, marry, and merry in the US. Oddly enough, it appears some data was gathered from my neck of the woods and they did NOT have any distinction between these three words! But, just across the state line in Jersey, apparently there is a difference. Holy heck! I talk like a Jersey girl?!?!? This is (shocking) news to me!
Actually, while taking a Linguistics course at UPenn, I participated in one of the largest dialectical research projects as a subject precisely because I’m from the Lehigh Valley in PA – it’s a meeting point/crossover of several isoglosses. And they indicated at the time that the data they collected from me was “anomalous” despite the fact that I’d lived my entire life in one place (which was within 3 miles of where both my parents lived their entire lives) and, at the time, had traveled little. Strange.
Regardless, the map shows that the vast majority of Americans would not distinguish the three words… only a few pockets along the eastern seaboard make distinctions. Poor hairy Harry!
The map which appears on pg 56 (I apologize for the ridiculous length of the URL – link would not embed): http://books.google.com/books?id=qa4-dFqi6iMC&pg=PA54&lpg=PA54&dq=mary+marry+merry+isogloss&source=bl&ots=MogoVrGfKC&sig=kXaPRakhBSfH6TUONEc7TA5H1Pg&hl=en&ei=c8waTMufLoSclgeC_Ij6Cg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=mary%20marry%20merry%20isogloss&f=false
Charlotte Vera says
Very interesting! Too bad the map’s so small. I wonder what one from Canada would look like. I rather think our accent tends to be somewhat more uniform over here, although there are some variances.
I generally pronounce Mary, merry, and marry so that they rhyme/sound the same, but pronounce bag and beg differently.
Fascinating, JNE – thanks! And oh dear, hairy Harry.
I like Harry alright, but I’d probably stick with Henry, since they are both two syllables. Wouldn’t want my kid to be just another Tom, Dick or Harry. 😀
Charlotte Vera says
Thanks for doing this! Where my dad grew up Harry is pronounced to rhyme with hairy, et all. However, where I grew up the pronunciation was more akin to the way it’s pronounced in the UK than in much of North America. I remember when I was quite young (long before Harry Potter made waves) that my dad told me his name was not at all common. I replied by saying that I came across Harrys quite often in books, so perhaps it wasn’t quite as uncommon as he thought.
A question for those of you who pronounce Mary and marry differently: how do you pronounce merry?
British American says
Hopefully this makes some sense. I say:
Mary = Mair-ree
Marry = Mah-ree
Merry = Meh-ree
The M sound at the beginning of each word sounds like “muh”, but blends with that first syllable.
I’m from eastern PA and I say these the same as you.
I’m from Indiana and I say those all the same way. But I can *hear* the differences when people say them your way — I know a lot of Americans can’t tell the difference.
Mary – MARE-ee
marry = MA-ree
merry = MEH=ree
They are three different words, after all. 😉
LOVE the boy wizard, but not a fan of the name. It’s not a horrible name or one that would garner a reaction of ‘Oh, why” or ”poor kid” etc, but it’s not one that I personally find appealing. No offense meant to any who like it or who wear the name!I’m not really a fan of any of the similar names mentioned, excluding the French Henri .At the risk of sounding mean,I’ve always found Harry as a nickname for Henry as rather silly. I’m on the team of all the husbands who vetoed Hank. It’s a cultural/personality thing for me & stylistically opposite to my taste – no offense meant anyone! If I were to use an -arry name, it would be Parry which is actually a family name.
British American says
Harry as a nickname for Henry has never really made sense to me either. I guess along the lines of Daisy as a nickname for Margaret. Though Harry and Henry do at least look similar.
I say Marry/Mar/Merry exactly the same as you
Daisy confused me for ages. Apparently – and I could & am probably am wrong, but I know it’s related to the French version of it or something like that . Sorry, that wasn’t very helpful 🙁 Personally, I’d just name my kid Daisy lol
I believe Daisy is used for Margaret because in most European languages the flower and the name are the same word (Marguerite, Margherita, Margarida, Margriet, etc.)
Harry for Henry is one of those nicknames that comes from Ancient English and thus makes little sense nowadays. Same as Jack for John, Dick for Richard, Polly for Mary, Nancy for Agnes, etc.
Thanks ! 🙂
I remember a friend of mine in high school told a story about a Harry and kept saying Hairy. I was totally confused. I thought she was making fun, but she didn’t seem to be… for me, an American, who never left eastern PA for more than a week prior to then, the name is nothing like “hairy”… that rhymes with airy and Harry rhymes with marry and carry and… well, those names rhyme with hairy for some people, but for me the a in Harry is like the one in past.
My husband is a Brit and says Harry like me. (Do the people who say it hairy also say Gary like Gerry with a hard G and Larry like layer-y? I’m genuinely curious!)
I like Harold nn Harry, but the a in both is like the a in last (for me) and Hair-old and Hairy are NOT cool in my ear! The thought that tons of people would call him Hairy is off-putting! So those never made it past the long list.
Too bad for the hairy thing because Harry is downright adorable!
For me, Harry, airy, hairy, marry, carry, Larry, Gerry and Gary all rhyme. 🙂
wow! for me, they’re all distinctly different .
Yes, me too. They all rhyme. (I’m from Texas.)
I know what you mean! Harry and hairy are two distinctly different sounding words, coming from my mouth. But I also say FLAH-rida and AH-ringe instead of FLOOR-idah and OR-inge. 😉
Also, that’s why I didn’t name my son Aaron, even though I liked the name a lot. Too many people pronounce Erin and Aaron the same: AIR-in, and I pronounce Aaron with the same flat A as in Harry, and Erin is EH-rin for me. If I could guarantee that I’d always be living in the northeast, I’d have done it, but as a military wife who too often gets stuck in the south, it wasn’t happening.
British American says
I like Harry. 🙂 Probably more as a nickname than a full name. But I like it better as a full name than some other nickname-names eg. not as keen on Charlie, Alfie or Freddie on the birth certificate.
I don’t at all think “hairy”. Maybe it’s because of my British accent – Harry and hairy sound a lot different.
I like the British-vibe of it as a nickname for Henry (rather than the American-vibe of Hank). That being said, I’ve never tried calling our Henry “Harry”. I guess Harry feels like a different name – rather than a nickname – so it would feel weird to call my son by a different name. It doesn’t really feel like the right nickname for him – plus it’s the same length as his actual name and I think I like nicknames to be shorter or longer or more unique than the given name. I do like that my son has the option to go by Harry, as a nickname, if he wanted to, when he’s older. (Watch him chose Hank instead, which DH & I aren’t so keen on!)
Harrison is a family name on my dad’s side, and my aunts have been looking pointedly at me every time we discuss potential future-baby names at Christmas. I do like Harrison (and the dreamy Harrison Ford connection), and might even consider using it even though it’s a little on the popular side for my taste… but the nickname-ability has got me down.
Much as I adore the boy wizard, I’m just not wild about Harry… I, like Panya, hear only “hairy”, and since we have a one-syllable color of a last name, I just think it would be too descriptive of a name to bestow upon any son of mine. Harrison, however, might just fit the bill if we could be creative enough to come up with a nickname that works better than Harry.
P.S. I LOVE the vintage moniker Henry, but my husband has put his foot down, saying that no child of ours will be nicknamed “Hank”, which he deems a name fit only for an English Bulldog. Ugh.
British American says
Aww, my husband almost did the same thing: objecting to Henry because of the Hank nickname. But we do now have a 2 year old Henry, who is not a Hank. His at-home-nickname is Hens.
I do like Harrison, though I also like the nickname Harry. Would Harris work as a nickname? Are you looking for a nickname that other people would also call him or just one for home? If it’s just an at-home one, then it wouldn’t really have to be related to his actual name. One would probably just evolve over time.
You know, you have a good point there… I’m no doormat, and would be the first one to pipe up and say, “His name is Henry, not Hank.” I’ll keep working on my husband, and who knows, by the time I’m actually expecting, he may have softened. 🙂
Also, I like the option of the Harris nickname. I don’t necessarily need a nn that the general public will be allowed to call my child, but I lean toward loving 3-syllable names, and it’s only natural to want to shorten that into something a little easier to yell on the playground. I have the same hangups with Donovan (Donnie is NOT happening), but I’m working through it.
BTW, Hens? Adorable. 🙂 Thanks!
British American says
🙂 My husband’s Uncle did send us an e mail saying that our Henry Robert could be known as “Hanky Bob” – but that was back when Henry was born & we never really see the Uncle. That’s the only time it’s ever really come up and I’d expect friends & family to respect you if you tell them “He’s Henry, not Hank.”
Your husband may indeed come around. We haven’t named either of our children until they were born – by which point, my husband was more receptive to my name choices!
I see what you mean about needing a shorter name to call out. We liked Oliver, but weren’t especially keen on Ollie or Ol and figured with a 3 syllable name that we’d need a nickname at times. Though friends have a Matthew whose nickname is Bubba, so random nicknames do evolve.
Van would be a cute nickname for Donovan.
Henry’s nickname was “Henry Spenry” then “Spenry” then “Spens” (which sounded more like a nickname for Spencer) and then Hens – which is only weird when you’re reading a story about a farmyard and you’re like “Look at those hens.”
I think its nice for other people, but this one is not for me. My feelings toward this name are contradictory, I do like its classic and timeless vibe, but I also think of the word “hairy.” Then again, I have met a few Harrys and the name fit them so well and if I met a baby with this name, I would be kind of refreshed. So. Its not my style, but definitely nice on someone else.
This is one that baffles me. I’m really not a fan of Harry at all. All I hear/think of is “hairy.”
Harry is considered quite downmarket in many corners of the world actually – kind of like a male Madison, or getting there.
It’s hard for me to see that in the US, where I think he’d be perceived more like Olive or Atticus – a thoroughly hipster pick.