Knights and lions and trains, oh my – what’s better for a little boy?
Thanks to Sara for suggesting Lionel as Baby Name of the Day.
Lionel traces his roots to the Greek leon – lion. The king of the jungle has inspired parents for centuries. There were popes called Leo, the revolutionary Leon Trotsky, and Sir Lionel, a Knight of the Round Table in Arthurian legend.
Lionel probably evolved as a French diminutive – Leon plus -el, hence the meaning “little lion” you’ll find in many guides. The first famous Lionel was the younger son of the King of Gaul and cousin to Lancelot. He’s almost certainly a fiction, but like any Arthurian knight, there’s something romantically appealing about his name.
Plenty of aristocratic Lionels can be found over the centuries. King Edward III of England gave the name to his third son, the future Duke of Clarence, in the 1300s. Three hundred years later, Lionel Boyle was the 3rd Earl of Orrery, and a Member of Parliament from Ireland. A string of Lionels can be found in between, too.
American royalty also embraced the name. Oscar-winning Lionel Barrymore was part of the acting dynasty.
In more recent generations, Lionel has seemed more workaday. Lionel Cartwright scored several hit singles on the Billboard country music charts in the 1980s. On television, George and Louise Jefferson were parents to Lionel; the character moved from neighborhoods with his parents from All in the Family to The Jeffersons.
And then there are the trains.
Before there was Thomas the Tank Engine, kids grew up playing with Lionel model trains. Founded by Joshua Lionel Cowen, the company produced trains from 1903 until 1969, and recently re-entered the business. Cowen wasn’t the first to put train tracks under Christmas trees – the practice started in Germany – but they’ve become an American tradition. It lends Lionel a certain vintage charm.
With Leo all the rage, you might expect Lionel to making a comeback, too. But so far, the tide that has lifted Leonardo and Leon has left him out. Never a smash hit in the US, Lionel appeared in the Top 1000 most years from 1880 through 1998. But he’s been fading for years.
Blame it on Lionel Richie. While our kids may know him mainly as grandpa to Harlow and Sparrow, today’s parents probably hear Lionel and think easy listening.
Spanish variant Leonel does chart in the US Top 1000 and might be an option for parents who love Lionel’s three-syllable rhythm, but would rather not hear the lyrics to “Dancin’ on the Ceiling” and “Hello” sung as lullabyes.
But the pop singer is fading, while Leo is widly fashionable, and boys’ names ending in -el are catching on, too. If Gabriel and Raphael, Abel and Dashiell, can join the evergreen Michael and Daniel in use, then why not Lionel?