English: Sport Nautique (Belgium) winning the ...
English: Sport Nautique (Belgium) winning the Grand Challenge Cup, Henley Regatta – B&W photo – July 1907 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He’s a little bit prep, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.

Thanks to Esther for suggesting Henley as our Baby Name of the Day.

Henley brings to mind a bunch of different things – he’s a place name and a surname, as in Southern rock legend Don Henley, and a shirt made famous by Ralph Lauren and the L.L. Bean catalog.  He’s a storied regatta, too, a staple of the London social season.

Let’s start with the place name, which is where it all begins.  More than one locale in England took its name from the Old English heah – high – combined with that faithful standby leah – wood or clearing.  In Henley’s case, heah became hean, and combined the two elements made hean-leage, and then Henley – a high place.

Lots of high places borrowed the name, and there were other possible sources for Henley, too:

  • He could be an alternate spelling of other surnames, like the German Henle – ultimately linked back to John, via Handel.
  • The Irish surname Hennelly was derived from the given name Fingal – really! – which ties Henley to the fashionable Finn.
  • There’s also Hanley, possibly from a personal name, or maybe from han – stone, plus leah.
  • The Old English henn meant wild bird.  A clearing known for harboring wild birds could, possibly, have become Henley.
  • Lastly, it is tempting to tie Henley to Henry and company, but that’s a stretch.

Back to the map.  One of the more famous Henleys is Henley-on-Thames, home of the Henley Royal Regatta.  While Americans are celebrating Independence Day, English society gathers for the Grand Challenge Cup and other events.  The regatta dates to 1839, and has long enjoyed royal patronage.

Few things are as preppy as rowing.  But let’s layer on one more rep stripe’s worth of prepster cred: the henley shirt.  A collarless men’s pullover, it was traditionally worn by rowers at Henley-on-Thames – hence, the shirt’s traditional name.  Ralph Lauren and LL Bean both sell them.

Bearers of the surname have added shades of meaning to Henley:

  • Brothers John and Robert Henley served a young US Navy in the late 1700s, and several ships have been named the USS Henley in their honor
  • William Earnest Henley penned the 1875 poem Invictus
  • Indiana entrepreneur Micajah Henley churned out bikes and roller skates at the turn of the twentieth century
  • Playwright Beth Henley won a Pulitzer for her 1978 Crimes of the Heart

There are plenty more, but he also belongs with musical surnames like Hendrix and Lennon.  As frontman for 1970s Southern rock band The Eagles, Don Henley earned six Grammys, and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and went on to a successful solo career.

While he has never made the US Top 1000, 42 boys received the name in 2011, plus 135 girls.  Given the popularity of Ashley and Hailey for girls, the -ley ending seems like fair game.  Henley seems likely to be more of a Riley or a Bailey – wearable for both, and really quite dashing on a boy.

Overall, he’s an interesting option for a son – preppy yet masculine, seldom heard but perfectly on trend.

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. How do you find so much information on name origins? Is it all from the internet or do you use research books?

    1. I tend to have a gut reaction to 9 out of 10 names, where I have a sense of the origins and the story I will probably write. Sometimes I find out I’m not completely correct. Still, it’s a lifetime obsession and I think many of us probably walk around with some of the general information in my brain. FWIW, my undergraduate degree is in history and religious studies, and I’ve always been good at remembering timelines and the big picture stuff.

      When I first started, I used to write from the library, using a mix of reference books and the internet. After my daughter was born, Google Book Search got much better, and most of my research is now online. About two years ago, I started trying to plug in links to all of the posts – like links to the Henley royal regatta, etc. – but I’ve been plagued by broken links, and I’ve become much more hesitant to do that.

      Would it be helpful to see resources/suggested links? I’ve thought about building that page a million times, but I’ve never gotten to it.

  2. I don’t mind it, but I’m not a huge fan of this name.

    Henley definitely reads masculine to me, its so similar to Henry.

  3. I like it! Thanks for highlighting it. I also like Micajah but not sure of pronunciation since nameberry lists Cager as a nickname for it. hmmmm

    1. Micajah was the standout name to me from this post! My first thought was to pronounce it with a soft J, like Micaiah (rhymes with Elijah).

      Henley is all t-shirt to me…

  4. I considered Henley, along with a just about every name remotely related to Henry, after my best friend “stole” Henry. While I liked the preppy image of Henley, I never really warmed up to the idea of it as a given name.

  5. Henley skews male for me. My very first boyfriend (in 4th grade!) was Richard Henley. My brain keeps making Henley, Hennesey, too. Weird, but there it is. It’s got a sporty sound & feels a fair bit preppy too. I like it, in theory.

    I also think henley shirts are a bit messy and tend to dress my men in polo shirts. So while I have fond memories of Rick, it’s not a name I’d ever use. Wouldn’t mind meeting some *boy* Henley’s though. It’s kind of spiffy. 😀

  6. It feels like a smoosh of Henry and Leigh for me, but somehow I like it-as you said its quite ‘dashing!’ Though I do prefer Riley.

    As a suggestion for further posts, a “Getting to Miri” article would be awesome.

  7. I had a math prof Henle and a H.S. english teacher named Hanley (both last names). I’d never connected them before. Hmm.

    Henley reads girl to me. Hen- (chicken) and -ley.