He’d fit nearly anyone’s definition of a normal name, but he was actually quite rare until the post-World War II era.
Thanks to Kelly for suggesting Ryan as Baby Name of the Day.
Plenty of parents would consider Ryan a classic, a perfectly respectable option for a son. Many also consider it a thoroughly Irish choice, but not one so kelly green that it couldn’t be worn by, say, Ryan Goldenblatt or Ryan Wu.
Among the many similar choices that have risen since World War II, Ryan seems to have more staying power than Aidan or Brian, Connor or Kyle. He entered the US Top 100 in 1971 and has been there ever since. In 2009, he ranked #19 , slipping from his early 90s peak of #11, but still going strong.
You might have met a Ryan in the nineteenth century, but it would almost certainly be a surname. While Ryan originates from a Gaelic given name, it survived mainly as Ó Riagháin or Ó Riain – a surname probably best translated as descendant of the little king. The Irish rí means king; an is that well-used diminutive form. Some have also linked Ryan to Ó Ruaidhín and others, too.
While many surnames floated into the first spot over the years, the early and mid-nineteenth century marked the height of “No Irish Need Apply” job postings and a host of discriminatory practices. With hibernophobia in full flower, Irish appellations were simply not fashionable. You were more likely to meet a Howard or an Albert, a Eugene or a Ralph.
But times change, and baby names follow. Two pop culture phenomena helped propel Ryan from a common surname to a popular first name choice.
First came actor Ryan O’Neal, born Charles Patrick Ryan O’Neal. His breakout role was as Rodney on 1960s prime time soap smash hit Peyton Place. Then came 1970’s Love Story. O’Neal played affluent Harvard grad Oliver Barrett IV. He falls in love with Jennifer Cavelleri, a Radcliffe student with more brains than bucks, played by Ali McGraw. It was, of course, the same year that Jenny jumped to the #1 spot in the US. But she’d been headed that way for a decade plus.
Ryan was the real name story of Love Story. He first entered US Top 1000 in 1946 and gained steadily. O’Neal’s star turn on Peyton Place pushed the name up the charts, but Ryan had reached a plateau, sliding to #139 in 1970. Then came the film and bam! Ryan was #51 in 1971 and peaked at #11 from 1990 to 1991. He still comes in at #19 and unlike many a name launched by pop culture, seems installed.
Just as O’Neal’s star faded, ABC introduced daytime soap opera Ryan’s Hope. Once again, Ryan was a surname. Patriarch Johnny owned a bar called Ryan’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. If a single soap character can inspire parents, then it’s no wonder that Ryan rose the entire time the eponymous show aired, from 1975 to 1989.
The list of famous Ryans today is too long to even contemplate. From Ryan Seacrest to Ryanair, it’s tough to avoid this name, whether you’re Irish or not. He’s become a modern staple, as ordinary as Eric or Jeffrey. He’s not original, but he’s a solid choice for parents seeking that elusive normal name.