Literature gave us a complex, violent, romantic figure. Our generation knows him as a good-natured, sweater-wearing dad and a fat cartoon kitty.
Thanks to Bree for suggesting Heathcliff as Baby Name of the Day.
Heath combines Hollywood style and nature-name appeal to seem a perfectly likely candidate for a boy born circa 2010. Clifford lingers in fashion limbo, but just for now – given his history of use, it is easy enough to imagine he’ll be rediscovered in another few decades. Even now, rugged Cliff is beginning to surface on baby name boards.
But what about Heathcliff? The name’s origins are obscure. Oh, we know Emily Brontë chose it for her tortured foundling turned foster child of the Earnshaw family. Return to the novel, and you’ll recall that Heathcliff was named after a deceased child, the last son of Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw, who died before the Heathcliff he remember was taken in to their home.
The foster son, of course, falls disastrously in love with his foster sister, Catherine. He eventually makes his fortune, but the pair never marry. Heathcliff’s later years are vengeful, angry ones.
You could deconstruct the name, cobbling together a definition based on the two halves. But it is nearly impossible to separate him from the literary figure, or at least from Laurence Olivier’s classic performance in the 1939 film adaptation.
Or, if you came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, Laurence Olivier and a fat, orange cat.
Cartoonist George Gately dared to appropriate the legendary figure’s unusual name in 1973, and Heathcliff the cat appears in over 1,000 newspapers every Sunday. Instead of prowling the moors, he trawls the fish market.
Just when you thought nothing could be less Heathcliff than that Heathcliff, The Cosby Show’s patriarch was named Heathcliff Huxtable, though Bill Cosby’s paterfamilias answered to Cliff.
None of this suggests that Heathcliff would make for a fashionable name for a son born circa 2010. And yet, the well-born British designer Lucy Sykes (her sister is novelist Plum Sykes) has kids called Heathcliff Felix Alastair Euan and Titus Jasper Jake Icarus.
Does that make Heathcliff an elaborate starbaby choice that just might catch on in the the mainstream? Or is he destined to remain an offbeat option only for the most daring baby namers?
My guess would be that he’s more the latter – but with easy nickname Heath, to say nothing of our growing tolerance for boys called Romeo and Orlando, perhaps I’m wrong.
Lynden Carola says
I have a son born June 23, 2010 named Heathcliff Lenhart. I chose the name because well first off I love the name. Second I picked it because it is versatile. He could be called “Heath” of “Cliff”. Most of his little friends call him “Cliffy”. I know the Wuthering Heights character is despicable but I have faith that my son can make this name all his own. Cheers for the thoughts.
Oh, thanks for doing this! I of course like Heathcliff and really don’t dislike the character that much, it may be because Ralph Fiennes was so great as Heathcliff.
Heath Ledger was named for Heathcliff — his sister is Cathy, IIRC — and the Heath nickname might make it a little more wearable? I don’t think the association with his death would linger long for a child born in 2010/2011.
Heath is our top boys name too. However I have never really considered Heathcliff, mostly because I too detest the book (gasp!). There is an insurance broker who has an office by my house and his name is Cliff Heath … I always laugh at the sign and wonder if his mom really liked Wuthering Heights, or if they ever even made the connection.
Too funny about Lucy Sykes. Heath and Titus are our top two names!
Heathcliff, however, I couldn’t see myself using. Or most anyone. Beyond my dislike of Wuthering Heights (shameful to admit, I know), I just find the name unappealing in my mouth. I think it’s the strong “cl” sound that gets me – those gutteral kinds of sound just irk me.
Sara A. says
I love Heathcliff! I can’t help but smile when I say it. Maybe it’s because of the long E combined with the hard H and soft TH sound form my face into a slight smirk and the KL sound of “Cliff” widens it a bit until the final F brings it to the full flower. It’s euphonic, British, handsome, and manly; unlike Charles for instance, which reduces us yankees to growling and jawing.
Heathcliff = miserable, abusive git.
Cliff = Cliff Richard. I find it amusing.
Heath, well, it’s fine.
I knew a mother who was seriously considering Cliff for a son. She had a daughter instead, and named her Catherine. I didn’t know her well enough to say “Really!?” I get that Cliff could have a rugged, nature name vibe – but it doesn’t quite get there, thanks to all of the men who have actually worn the name.
Heath is so handsome, makes me think of the young Lee Majors on Big Valley. And I saw it only in reruns, of course!
Joy, I’m delighted to know I’m not the only person who watched Big Valley in re-run! I often think of the daughter’s name, Audra, too – I’ve heard it more than once, but I suspect the parents proposing the name have never seen the show.
I started, but couldn’t finish Wurthering Heights, mostly because of the Heathcliff character.
When you remove the name from the novel, the cat or the Cosby Show and just look at the name… Heathcliff is too stuffy and rigid sounding. I suppose some parents might chose it in order to give Heath a more formal full name, but I think that would be unnecessary.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve never read Wuthering Heights. Sinful, I know. But I have seen the movie and obviously I know how connected the name is with the character. Also, I don’t like the Cliff part.
But, Heath… It’s just so handsome. It seems like it would be strange to use it though, I mean I was a fan of Heath Ledger but it just seems inappropriate somehow. I think that if he hadn’t passed away and his career had flourished like it likely would have, we would be in for a lot of little Heaths… But in reality, I don’t see that happening.
Lyndsay, I wondered about that, too – Heath is such a great name, but it does feel awfully loaded.
I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to recent Antipodean BAs of late but there’s certainly been a few new Heaths on the scene. It’s loaded now, but it’s definitely gaining more “currency”.
I grew up with a few here (one was a gigantic bully) and I’ve met many of various ages.
Charlotte Vera says
As much as I love literary appellations, Healthcliff himself, while fascinating, was such a horrible person I shudder at the thought of giving his name to a tiny baby. It’s a lot of literary baggage to carry.
Charlotte, that is the stumbling block with Heathcliff. He’s so deeply unhappy that it feels almost unfair to put the name on a child. But then I think of all those little boys called Romeo. He’s not exactly a role model, either, and somehow it matters less and less.
Charlotte Vera says
Hmm, yes, Romeo is growing in popularity despite his tragic story. However, Heathcliff is more than unhappy, he’s vengeful, and brutal to both people and animals. He makes not only his own life miserable, but the lives of those around him.
Not that I would ever name my child Romeo, either. I guess I just prefer names with happier connotations!