Thanks to Clio for choosing Kai as our Baby Name of the Day.
You wouldn’t have met a Kai in the nineteenth century. At least not in the US. By the 1950s and 60s, it was possible – though still highly unlikely.
Head to a kindergarten today, and odds are strong that you’ll hear the name. Kai first entered the US Top 1000 back in 1979, and ranked #195 by 2012. He shows no signs of slowing down, either. Call him a sweet spot name – different, but not too out there, the kind of unusual name many parents want.
There are bunches of possible origins for Kai, and we have to start out way back in the Middle Ages to find our first.
Sir Kay was King Arthur’s foster brother. In some tellings, he’s a brave and loyal knight. In others, he’s something of a buffoon. He’s also known as Caius, Keu, Kes, Kex, Kei, Cai, and Kai. One of the most logical explanations is that he’s derived from the Roman name Gaius.
We’re pretty sure that Gaius was Etruscan, but we’re not sure what it means. If it seems only vaguely familiar, it is because the most famous bearers are known by other parts of their names – Gaius Julius Caesar, or Gaius Octavius, better known as Augustus.
Anyhow, the Welsh given name Cai comes straight from the Round Table.
Then there’s the possibility that Kai is short for a longer name. Nicholas and Cornelius are two possibilities. And, of course, the sound occurs in so many names, from 1990s favorite Kyle to the Biblical Malachi.
- The most frequently cited origin is Hawaiian, where Kai has a history of use as a given name, and means sea.
- He’s also a Japanese name, with various meanings, including ocean and earth. The meaning depends on the kanji – characters – used to write the name.
- Kaio is a Basque form of Caius.
Then there’s the fairytale Kai. Hans Christian Anderson published the story of the Snow Queen in the 1840s. There’s a mirror, made by the devil himself, that distorts reality and makes us see the world as ugly and cruel. It shattered into millions of pieces, and now we can get splinters in our eyes and hearts. The story is about two children. When we first meet them, Kai and Gerda are best friends who live next door to each other. But as they grow up, Kai gets splinters in his eyes and heart. He is kidnapped by the Snow Queen, the ruler of the snow and ice. Everyone believes that Kai has died, drowned in the river. Gerda refuses to believe it, and goes on a journey, to rescue Kai from the Snow Queen. She frees him and the splinters leave his eyes and heart.
I’d heard that Disney was making an adaptation of the fairytale. It could be a huge boost for Kai! Except it looks like Frozen is a complete reinvention of the story, with no character called Kai.
Other references include NPR correspondent Kai Ryssdal and Ninjago’s Lego ninja Kai.
Overall, Kai sounds at home on a surfboard – a modern name with a cool sound. But he’s rich with history and ties to Ancient Rome and Arthurian legend, too. No wonder that Kai is catching on.