The baby name Sullivan mixes upbeat Irish energy with plenty of stylish sound.
Thanks to Kelly for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
LITTLE DARK-EYED ONE
The baby name Sullivan started out as an Irish surname.
But it comes from a given name – Suileabhain.
The first syllable means eye; the middle is dark; and the final element is a diminutive, meaning little. Put it all together, and it means “little dark eye.” Presumably, it might have been given to someone with dark eyes, just like people with brown hair ended up answering to Brown.
Others suggest that it might mean hawk-eyed instead.
In any case, the name’s Gaelic origins are clear, and it reads like an import from Ireland.
GILBERT and SULLIVAN
Musical theater fans might think of The Pirates of Penzance or The Mikado or any of the tremendously popular Victorian-era comic operas.
That’s thanks to dramatist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. The duo, known as Gilbert and Sullivan, collaborated on fourteen works between 1871 and 1896.
Many are still performed – and beloved – today.
Separately, Arthur Sullivan composed church music, including the enduring hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” He also wrote orchestral works, ballets, and more.
That makes the baby name Sullivan just slightly musical.
And then there’s Ed Sullivan.
Long before there was MTV, musicians clamored to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. The longest running variety show in television history, it debuted in 1948 and ran through 1971. For more than one generation, it was the place to hear emerging artists.
But it wasn’t just music. It showcased all types of performers, including jazz, classical music, and comedians. And Sullivan was also notable for his openness. At a time when mainstream television routinely discriminated, Sullivan insisted on booking talent, regardless of race or religion.
While the legendary television host passed away in 1974, the concept of the show – and the title – appear in countless movies and other television shows about the era.
Still, it’s not Ed Sullivan than this generation of parents – or kids – will think of first.
That distinction likely belongs to a hairy blue monster at the heart of Pixar’s 2001 film Monsters, Inc., as well as the 2013 prequel, Monsters University.
At the heart of both stories is a pair of best friends. Mike Wazowksi, voiced by Billy Crystal, is a one-eyed green ball with legs. James P. Sullivan, called Sulley, is big and blue.
Monsters University tells the story of how they became best friends. Monsters, Inc. is all about their work at Monstropolis’ power plant.
Chances are you know the story – monsters used to scare children; the kids’ screams powered everything in the monster world. But through a series of misadventures, Mike and Sulley discover than children’s laughter is even more potent … and everything changes.
Disney-Pixar movies can be incredibly influential, particularly when it comes to boys’ names. Just ask Arlo, Dash, and Luca, and yes, Sullivan.
In the same era that Sulley was busy being big and blue, a heroic Sully captured the public’s imagination.
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was piloting US Airways Flight 1549 when it was forced to make an emergency water landing on the Hudson River. All 155 people aboard survived. The 2016 movie about it was titled Sully: Miracle on the Hudson.
If the nickname Sully felt lightweight thanks to the animated character, the pilot’s heroism shifted the name’s image.
BY the NUMBERS
The baby name Sullivan returned to the US Top 1000 popular names for boys in 2002.
Monsters, Inc. gets credit. But the Irish name had quietly been gaining in use since the 1990s.
In fact, the surname appeared in the US Top 1000 a few times during the nineteenth century.
But this is the age of Sullivan. As of 2021, the name reached at all-time high ranking of #373.
It fits with surname names for boys, as well as our ongoing love of Irish names. A handful of celebrity babies, like Patrick Dempsey’s son, born in 2007, as well as fictional characters, like Third Watch’s John “Sully” Sullivan, boosted the name’s profile along the way.
TRUSTWORTHY and WARM
All combined, the baby name Sullivan projects warmth and constancy. It’s the kind of name that sounds adorable and friendly on a small child; respectable and strong on an adult.
With generations of grown men answering to names like Ryan and Aiden, Sullivan feels like the logical next name in that series.
What do you think of the baby name Sullivan?
Originally published on January 3, 2011, this post was revised substantially and re-published on November 8, 2022.
I have a Sullivan or Sully that was born in 2007. We’ve never met another Sullivan personally but I had a co-worker who “stole” the name a year after he was born. I wasn’t sure if I should be annoyed or flattered. Everybody loves his and his sister’s names (Lanora). I’ve seen it come up in pop culture lately, Sully was excited when he found out that the starring character in Avatar is a Sully. We sorta were inspired by Godsmack’s lead singer’s name, Sully Urna, but made it Sullivan although Sully fits his mischievous personality quite well. I’m still proud of his name and secretly hope it doesn’t become too popular.
I do have to say that although Sully does not have dark eyes (they are hazel), he is almost half Irish (great great grandparents are from Ireland, which is fairly recent) and has light auburn hair and some freckles, so the name is quite fitting due to his heritage. 😉
I have a Sullivan whom we call Sulli or Sul depending on the mood! Was convinced with my genes I was having a dark eyed child! How wrong can one be – bright blue, blonde haired. He loves the fact that he’s only ever come across 1 other child with the same name so far.
I know this is a super old thread but we have a Sullivan “Sully” which we love but are having a hard time coming up with sibling names… we like classic sounding names that are less popular, tend to gravitate to surnames, and like more gender neutral names. Some that we have considered are Monroe (b/g), Elliot (g), and Theodore (b). Any suggestions?
Let me ask on Facebook/Twitter, B!
We’ve just had our third and named him Sullivan. I’ve been less sure about the name than my wife was, so I guess I’ve been scanning forums for reassurance.
We’ve always had the same approach to baby names: Classic strong names that are less popular. We named our first boy Spencer, and our girl Adelaide. I do love the names, and I feel that Sullivan really fits well with them others!
Just thought I’d let you know.
Best of luck
Congrats on your new son, Thomo – what a great trio of names!
We are expecting a little girl and considering Sullivan as a first name… what are other people’s thoughts? I believe that it was originally a girls name but grew in popularity as a boys name. I would appreciate feedback if you are game?!
I think Sullivan works well for a daughter – in our age of Madison, Avery, Harper, and Harlow, any surname is fair game for a girl.
By numbers alone, Sullivan has always been more popular for boys. That’s true of most surnames. There are long traditions of passing down family surnames to sons and daughters, but the tradition is a little stronger for sons. (Though plenty of families, especially in the South, take a more equal opportunity approach.)
So you’ll definitely get some negative/curious reactions from others who expect Sullivan to be a boy – or who feel that you’ve given your daughter an inappropriately boyish name. But generations of women have grown up as Shirley and Kimberly and Taylor and lived to tell, so I wouldn’t worry about that too much. (Unless, of course, you know that it’s the kind of thing that will bother you.)
We actually picked Sullivan as a boy or girl, so that we weren’t calling our baby “it” during the pregnancy. Middle name would’ve been Ruth for a girl and a family name – Anderson – for a boy. I kinda liked and wish we had gone with Aloysius though 🙂
I just stumbled upon this…I am the mama of a Sullivan. Yes, I am from Charleston and considered Cooper. My dog’s name is Jasper, too! I gave him the name before I discovered he was a “he” but I think it does suit boys a bit better. What I did find interesting about reading this is that my boy has piercing blue eyes.
One last thing, as curmudgeonly man once said, the name is “different without being weird.”
My son who is now 15, is named Sullivan. He goes by Sull. It suits him well.
My son is Sullivan Andrew. I love the name. We aren’t Irish and Sullivan doesn’t have dark eyes, but who really cares about the meaning.
We just had our 4th child and named him Sullivan. I call him Van, when I can’t seem to get three syllables out, but others (like my mom) call him Sully. My husband is an attorney and uses the term “sullying” fairly often with a negative connotation in court, but says Van doesn’t come naturally for him either, so we are trying to find alternative nickname. (I’m hoping he will just grow into Van… cause I think it is adorable! ). Sullivan is my Grandmother’s mothers maiden name, I am named after her and my grandmother passed away while I was pregnant so the name is high in sentimental value:)
I just recently named my son Sullivan Cole.. I’ve had mixed reactions, but for the most part it’s been very positive. We call him Sully all the time.. I think Sullivan is a truly cool name. 🙂
Sullivan has recently popped on my radar and I’m liking it more and more. You may remember me as the searcher for the perfect boy’s name with a v in the middle to honor my husband Trevor and FIL Ivan. I’m finally pregnant, with a boy, and Sullivan and Evan are serious contenders. I even found an ancestor named Sullivan (gr-gr-gr-grandmother’s maiden name), so if pressed I can claim it’s a family name. Win-win.
We love the name Sullivan and we just thought of it last weekend. I come from an Irish family and our favorite spot to hang out as a family is Sullivans Island,
SC…which is where we were when it hit us. Literally hours later we heard a mother call for her son… “Sully…” My wife and I looked at each other like it was fate.
We moved away from Charleston a few years ago and miss it dearly. We asked the woman where she came up with the name and she said she her family
moved from Charleston years ago and named all of thier kids after Charleston in some form (Cooper, Ashley, Charles and Sullivan). We think we will use it
for a girl or a boy (we arent finding out). Sullivan David (Sully) or Sullivan Ann (Sully or Sully Ann) as nicknames.
I love Sullivan. I am having my gender determining ultrasound tomorrow. If this baby is a boy, his name will be Sullivan. I took this post as a good omen.
Wow, April – congratulations! How VERY exciting.
Heather Elaine says
I really like Sully and Sullivan, or Van as a nickname would be fine too (I didn’t mind it on Reba). Sullivan definitely sounds Irish, and since I have a lot of Irish background that alone adds a giant appeal. I like other Irish names, especially Aoife, Caoimhe, and Seamus, but I’m extremely hesitant to use something most of the people I know won’t be able to spell. I also don’t intend to change the spellings to fit the pronunciation – that just doesn’t work for me.
Sullivan, however, is familiar, not overused, is definitely masculine, has a nice meaning, and is quite easy to spell. I think I’d call that a win in my book. I think the only drawback that keeps it from being a favorite on my list is the meaning of Sully: to make soiled or tarnished, defile. Not such a good meaning. :'( Other than that, I have no objections and would happily use it for a child.
Oh, and I love Monsters Inc., it’s probably one of my favorite Pixar movies. 🙂
One of my friends is named Caoimhe. She loves it but she hates spelling it! By the way does anyone find it weird that Sully has blue eyes?!?! LOL
Heather Elaine says
Lol, that is funny! Caoimhe is a gorgeous name, it’s really too bad that I’m so conservative about spelling.
I like Sully more than Sullivan but like that both skew very masculine. I may be dating myself here, but wasn’t there a Sully on “Dr. Quiinn, Medicine Woman” back in the day? I seem to think “Mike & Sully” meant something there too. *Shrug* too lazy to go check.
But I do like Sully, he’s a bit dashing and a little pugnacious feeling. I like that too. Sullivan doesn’t work for me, personally (Sounds like a construction firm when paired with my surname). But I would love to meet one (or more)!
I like Sullivan. But Sully always reminds me of Biff and Sully, the garbagemen who carried Oscar around in his can on Sesame Street.
Ha! I’d completely forgotten that. But the meaning of Sully is a strike against it, I suppose …
Lulu Bee says
Sullivan is one of my husband’s favorite names ever. I don’t really care for it much at all. I like it fine for someone else’s kid, but it just gets under my skin because my husband constantly suggests it.
But it must be nice to have him HAVE a favorite name. I’m jealous! 🙂
Emmy Jo says
Sullivan is nice enough. It’s one I’ve never been very excited about, but as a brown-eyed girl myself, I love that it means “little dark-eyed one.”
Lady Gwyn says
I do kind of like this one, but there are other Irish names I like better (Eamon, Seamus, Conall, Dermot). I think Van might be a usable nickname, too, if Sully doesn’t trip your trigger.
I do like Van as a nickname. Great suggestion!