Portrait of Nat King Cole, New York, N.Y.He’s a modern staple with a musical side.

Thanks to Vanessa for suggesting Cole as our Baby Name of the Day.

Old King Cole, Cole Porter, Nat King ColeHas Cole really been in use as a given name for centuries?

The nursery rhyme is first recorded in the 1700s.  Old King Cole calls for his pipe, his bowl, and his fiddlers three.  Drawings show a smoking pipe, but it was probably more like a flute.  In Gaelic the word for music is ceol, so the royal moniker might be a musical play on words.

Or maybe Cole comes from the Anglo Saxon Cola, derived from the word for coal and given to someone dark-haired or dark-complexioned.

There may have been a real king by the name.  Coel Hen was a semi-legendary British ruler, a Roman commander in Britain.  The empire collapsed and he eventually became ruler. His descendants went on to reign over many a kingdom, and one – also named Cole – was the father of Saint Helena.

The list of origins for the name is long.  Besides Cola and Coel, there’s:

  • As a surname, it is an Anglicized spelling of the German Kohl or a translation of the French Charbonneau.
  • He can be a short form of Nicholas.
  • Then there’s Coleman – an occupational name for a coal-gatherer – and Colman, from St. Columbanus, an Irish missionary who evangelized Europe.

He was seldom heard until the twentieth century, when along came Cole Porter.  His first name was mom’s maiden name, and mom came from an influential Indiana family.  Porter was expected to become a lawyer, but he took his piano to prep school, served as president of the Glee Club at Yale, and finally dropped out of Harvard Law to pursue music.

His work is part of the American songbook – think of “Night and Day” or “I Get a Kick Out of You” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

Nathaniel Adams Coles was given the nickname King.  Young Nat set out to be a jazz pianist, but his winning baritone propelled him to fame as a singer.  His recordings for Capitol Records put the company on the map in the 1940s.  In 1956, he became the host of NBC’s The Nat King Cole Show, the first network television show hosted by an African-American.  He’s a legend, and he’s familiar to this generation of parents thanks to his daughter Natalie – also a singer, whose technologically-enabled recording of “Unforgettable” as a duet with her late father scored a Grammy in 1992.

Lego Battles: Ninjago

Cole got a second boost in the early 1990s.  Tom Cruise played race car driver Cole Trickle in 1990’s Days of Thunder.

In 1990, the name ranked #249.  By 1991, Cole was #162, and he entered the Top 100 in 1997.

Nicholas had been in the US Top 20 since 1984, and Colin was also on the rise in the late 1980s.  But Cole pulled out far in front, boosted by even more fictional characters.  Cole appeared on soap operas, and the son in 1995’s Mr. Holland’s Opus was Coltrane, called Cole.

The Ninjago ninjas are Jay, Zane, Kai, and Cole – today’s everyboy names.

Those subtle musical ties are appealing, too – less obvious than Drummer or Chord, but still present.

Add it up, and Cole became the latest in a long series of short names for boys – from John to Todd to Mark to Cole, and now Kai and Gage and Chase and so many other popular picks.  Cole fits right in, a wearable staple for a boy born in 2014.

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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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  1. My mother’s maiden name is Coleman, and I had read that it was connected to Nicholas somehow, possibly though Collin? And my mom always said it was connected to cabbage, like cole slaw. Are both of those references just folk etymology?

    1. Does she have German heritage? Because one of the German words for cabbage (kohl) is pronounced like Cole and one of the meanings for the German surname Kohlmann* is “cabbage farmer.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to see Kohlmann anglicized to Coleman.

      *This is my godfather’s surname, so I’ve thought Cole might have been a nice way to honor him.