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Looking for a name for a red-headed philosopher with a Hollywood vibe?

Thanks to JNE for suggesting Russell as Baby Name of the Day.

Conventional wisdom holds that Russell means red, from the French roux, denoting red hair.  Roux became roussel – little red – and eventually, just like so many other descriptive terms, became a personal name and a surname.

That’s where it gets tricky.  Even if this one came out of the eleventh century Anglo-Norman soup, others adopted it later.  German surnames Raus – from a word meaning noise – and Rüssel – from the element hrod, renown, also appearing in Robert – could lead to Russel or Russell in the US.  Place name and surname Ruston also sometimes surfaces in this conversation.

Regardless of his roots, in the late nineteenth and through much of the twentieth century, Russell was a staple.  He ranked in the US Top 100 from 1889 through 1982.  His peak year was 1904, when he reached #48, but Russell hovered around the #50 mark for some time.  As of 2008, the name ranked #408 – quite a tumble.

Variants – including the one-l Russel, short form Russ and diminutive Rusty – also appeared in the US Top 1000.

Why did all of the Rus- names fall?

Non-human uses range from Jack Russell terriers to Russell Corporation athletic wear (founded by Benjamin Russell) and that mainstay of Mother’s Day, Russell Stover candies.  (Yes, Mr. Stover was a real person.)  Thomas Russell founded Russell Motor Car Company in Toronto and eventually manufactured the first successful Canadian automobiles.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell lent the name some smarts in the early 20th century.  The Nobel-prize winner was also known for campaigning against Hitler and later, America’s involvement in Vietnam.
Before there was Bertrand, there was Lillian, a well-known stage actress in the late 19th century.
Throw in actor Kurt, comic Nipsey (born Julius) and early Hollywood star Rosalind, to name just a few, and it is easy to find a distinguished Mr. or Ms. Russell.
In the first spot, notable bearers are fewer, but include:
  • Def Jam and Phat Farm founder Russell Simmons;
  • Australian actor and Oscar winner Russell Crowe, as well as actor Russ Tamblyn, known for many Hollywood roles, like Riff, the leader of the Jets in West Side Story;
  • Pioneering comic book artist Russ Manning;
  • Athletes and politicians aplenty, from the nineteenth century right through today.

Then there’s Rusty, a cute nickname for an overall-clad tot, but not exactly a name for, say, a Supreme Court Justice.  Outside of NASCAR, the most famous Rusty is fictional – son to Clark W. Griswold in the National Lampoon’s Vacation series.

Rusty was Anthony Michael Hall’s breakout, pre-John Hughes, role back in 1983, when Clark first piloted the Family Truckster to Walley World.  A different actor wore the name in the sequels.

Today Russell is fading. While nearly every surname name seems current, Russell sounds like Tyler and Carson’s dad, not a potential classmate.

But is that such a bad thing?  For many parents, a name like Russell would prove very satisfying – easily recognized, simple to spell, but rarely shared.  And between the many men called Russell in years past and those of us the surname on our family trees, it is easy to imagine Russell having meaning for many.

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. In many ways I really, really like Russel. But I was born in the ’80s and for me the name still brings back scenes from Honey I Shrunk the kids that involved the next door neighbour yelling, “Russel!” at his son in a very, “I’m going to teach you how to be a man” tone of voice.

  2. Great post! I have a cousin named Russell, who’s often gone by Russ in the past 40 years. I also once dated a Rusty, nn for Russell, but today he goes by his first name, James.

    To me, Russell has aged better than other names that exploded in popularity in the 60s, such as Kevin, Dwayne, Todd, Brian and Scott.

  3. Well we have a Russell at my house, but he’s a springer spaniel. While our dog is technically named after the baseball player Rusty Staub, I agreed to the name because I like the name Russell, but it doesn’t work with our last name.

    It’s interesting to me that the film UP! had a character named Russell and Brad Pitt played cooler that cool Rusty Ryan in the Ocean’s Eleven (etc.) films. I would have thought Russell would catch on with the crowd that likes musty-cool names like Dorothy and Vincent.

  4. My first thought was the kids book ‘Russell the Sheep’ By Rob Scotton. But I’ve not read the book, just heard of it.

    I don’t think I’ve ever known a Russell – which is a plus for me, when it comes to names. Though I probably wouldn’t know how to spell it – with the double ss and the double ll.

    Also makes me think of stuffed toys, so I looked that up and found it’s the company Russ Berrie with the tag line: “Russ: Make Someone Happy”.

    I agree that it is fun to look at popular names that aren’t much used currently.

  5. I know a Russell who is college aged. He has twin brother named Trevor. I don’t know if it is because this is who I think of when I hear the name, but it seems very “country” to me. This set of twins grew up on a farm and were in 4H and FFA (Future Farmers of America). That is where the association comes from, I think. If it weren’t for that, I might like it.

  6. Thank you for covering Russell! I have a great uncle Russ. Previously, I would have skimmed over the name without paying attention, but lately I’ve been enjoying some of these ‘fallen, common’ names. I love exactly what Verity points out, everyone knows it, but few are using it. Russ is a cute nn. And I like its retro feel. I’m pretty sure I’m done naming babies, but I’ve added Russell to my mental ‘just in case’ list.

  7. great name of the day choice! russell is my dad’s name (it was my grandmothers maiden name) and is a definite future middle name. i didn’t know that it meant red, which is amusing me as my dad is a redhead!