Thanks to Bertram Bergamot for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
THE STATE of INDIANA
Back in 1800, Congress passed legislation to divide the Northwest Territory in half. The western section became the Indiana Territory. Sixteen years later, part of the territory began the journey to statehood.
Like many US states, Indiana’s name is a nod to its Native American roots – sort of.
The meaning of the name Indiana is, literally, “land of the Indians.”
It’s an accurate choice. Native peoples inhabited the area as early as 8000 BC. When European settlers arrived, the Shawnee, Miami, and Illini were among the tribes in the area.
Using Native American names can be problematic. The state’s history is one of conflict and oppression, with native peoples losing their historic claims to land.
And yet, as a name, Indiana is pure American invention, a romantic imagining. Like any place, there’s potential for association with historical ugliness. But the meaning, strictly speaking, isn’t Native. After all, the indigenous peoples didn’t refer to themselves by the name.
DR. HENRY WALTON JONES JR.
If you don’t think of the state, chances are you think of adventurous archeologist Dr. Henry Walton Jones, better known as Indiana – or just Indy. It’s one of Harrison Ford’s many famous roles.
He first appears on the big screen in 1981, with sequels in 1984, 1989, and 2008, as well as 2023. Young Indiana Jones aired on television in the 1990s, to say nothing of video games and Disney resort attractions.
The character’s name claims two inspirations: creator George Lucas had a dog by the name in the 1970s. (The fictional Dr. Jones borrowed his nickname from the family dog, too.) It’s also thought to be a nod to 1966 western Nevada Smith, starring Steve McQueen.
GENDER NEUTRAL NAME
While Indiana Jones is male, there’s nothing that specifically says Indy couldn’t be a girl.
Let’s go back to the nineteenth century. French writer George Sand published her very first novel in 1832, not long after Indiana became a state.
The novel was titled Indiana.
Only it wasn’t set in the United States. It’s the story a of a young woman, born in the French colonies and trapped in a loveless marriage in France.
More fuel for the girl name argument? In Frances Burney’s 1796 novel Camilla – years before the name was given to the American place – there’s a character called Indiana. She’s cousin to Camilla, and while she’s a knockout, she’s rather shallow and superficial.
In Burney’s case, Indiana was probably inspired by India – an elaboration using the -ana ending. India had a good run as a given name in the British Empire, thanks to families with ties to the colony.
Edith Wharton makes it a literary trifecta: in her 1913 novel The Custom of the Country, there’s a minor character named Indiana Frusk – this time an American.
On sound alone, this name leans girl – somewhere between Isabella and Mariana.
And yet, the fictional archeologist keeps this one in play for boys, too.
High profile usage is split:
- Australian actress Indiana Evans and singer Indiana Massara have boosted the popularity of the name in their country.
- Ethan Hawke has a daughter named Indiana, born in 2011.
- Actors Summer Phoenix and Casey Affleck welcomed a son named Indiana August in 2004. (Summer’s late brother River once played the young Dr. Jones, making this a creative honor name.)
BY the NUMBERS
Until Raiders of the Lost Ark, the baby name Indiana was used almost exclusively for girls.
Those numbers shifted over time:
- In 1982, five girls were named Indiana – the first time the name appeared in the US data since the 1950s.
- Indiana first appears in the boys’ data in 1990, the year after the third Indiana Jones movie was released. Six boys received the name, along with nine girls.
- 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull wasn’t a roaring success, but it pushed the baby nameIndiana’s use to an all-time high: 40 girls and 43 boys.
In 2022, 111 girls and 67 boys received the name. But that’s well before Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny debuted. Even a modest success will almost certainly lift the name – possibly more for boys than girls.
A handful of girls are also named Indianna. And, of course, Indie and Indy have seen some use, too. Indie ranks in the current girls’ Top 1000, with the spelling Indy not too far outside.
At first glance, the baby name Indiana is pure pop culture phenomenon. It’s tied to the archeologist/action hero who, after all, named himself after the dog.
Except the name has history to spare, including a long string of literary associations that predate the whip-wielding, fedora-wearing globetrotter by a lot.
Place names are more mainstream than ever, with choices like Brooklyn and Savannah ranking in the US Top 100, while more names – Boston and Denver and Aspen – aren’t far behind.
If you’re after a bold name that mixes Americana with plenty of intriguing backstory, Indiana could be the name for you.
What do you think of the baby name Indiana?
First published on November 19, 2014, this post was substantially revised and republished on July 12, 2023.