English: Marcel Marceau

If you think the world-famous mime had the last word on this one, you’re missing a great story.

Thanks to Stephanie for suggesting one from her family tree.  Our Baby Name of the Day is Marcel.

Marcel has plenty of cousins currently ranked in the US Top 1000.  Marcus and Marco are fashionable.  Mark and Marc have both fallen from their heights, but remain in use.

Marcus was a Roman given name, derived from either Mars, the god of war, or possibly a Greek word meaning tender, or maybe mas – male, the root of masculine.  Marcellus would have originally been a diminutive, but eventually became a family name and a given name on its own.  A pair of early popes answered to Marcellus, and one is a saint.

In English, Marcel is quite rare.  That’s not the case in other European languages.  He’s mar SELL in French, but MAHR tsel in Polish.  The entire cluster of Marc- names is well worn, from the Italian Marcello to the Czech Marek.

Marcel has ranked in the US Top 1000 every year since 1911.  He’s never made higher than the 500s, and he came in at a frosty #889 in 2009.  That’s more common than many would guess.  There are no shortage of notable Marcels, from French military commanders to athletes.

Most American parents today probably think of Ross’ pet monkey on Friends.  But there are two other well-known Marcels that could change his image.

Marcel DuChamp was an artist and an unapologetic rebel.  He was big in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements; Peggy Guggeheim relied on his advice.  We remember the uproar caused by his 1917 submission of Fountain – a urinal – to the Society of Independent Artists show.

But with his readymades – found objects he presented as art – DuChamp was less a Picasso, more a philosopher.  The Prix Marcel Duchamp has been given in France every year since 2000 to a promising young artist.  He lacks the American bravado of Jackson, but Marcel is another valid choice from the art world.

Then there’s Marcel Marceau.

Born in France, he was just a teenager when his Jewish family fled the Nazi occupation.  His father was a kosher butcher who died at Auschwitz.  Marcel and his older brother Alain joined the French Resistance, working to save children from the concentration camps.  This was the genesis of his skills – Marceau mimed to keep the children quiet during escapes.

In the 1950s, he started to tour the world, promoting l’art du silence – the art of silence.  Johnny Carson invited him as a frequent guest on his show; plenty of other television hosts did the same.  He even scored an Emmy for his work on Your Show of Shows.

It makes for a great story, and yet Marcel remains decidedly off-trend.  It is easy to imagine a girl answering to Marcella than a boy called Marcel.  Perhaps it is his -el ending, which seems the tiniest bit feminine.  Or maybe it is simply that DuChamp and Marceau own the name so completely that it doesn’t seem available for others to consider.  He’s equally out of favor in France today, too.

And yet, his story has some real appeal.  It is hard to imagine parents choosing this one out of the blue circa 2011, but if you’re lucky enough to find Marcel on your family tree, he might present an intriguing option.

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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 just watched “La Vie En Rose”, about the life of Edith Piaf, and it completely changed my view of this name. Edith’s big love was a boxing champion named Marcel, so now all I see is muscular chests and chiseled jaws with this name! The fact that it’s unisex (Marcelle was even the name of Edith Piaf’s daughter!) doesn’t bother me. There are plenty of unisex names that are still sexy for boys. Cary Grant, anyone?

  2. This post is only showing the first three sentences as well. Is there an easy fix?


  3. Just for the record, I am a guy. At birth my Mother named me Marcelle,that spelling.I hated it and trimmed it to Marcel, I still hate it because, unless you see it in writing it is still pronounced the same.I find it an extremely feminine name.I have schooled with girls with this name.Yes…….both spellings.Mothers considering giving their sons this name should seriously think about it,unless of course you happen to be French