Editor’s note: This post was originally published on March 8, 2009, and was substantially revised and re-posted on April 15, 2013.
If you’re watching VH-1, today’s choice means “fallen teen idol.” But if you’re tuned into the History Channel, his vibe is more “intrepid Scandinavian explorer.”
Thanks to Annelise for suggesting Leif as today’s Name of the Day.
In the 1960s, single syllable names for boys were big. Scott, Todd, Keith and Craig all ranked in the US Top 50, with similar choices like Troy, Dale, Glenn, Shawn/Sean, Jay, Dean, Brad, Kirk, Lance, Chad and Neil also popular. Little wonder that some parents discovered Leif.
Leif Erikson is in all of our history books. The son of bad boy explorer Erik the Red, he was born in the 970s in Iceland. Dad had explored Greenland. Junior bought a boat and sailed even farther. Many historians believe that he may have landed on Baffin Island. Most agree that he made it to Newfoundland, the easternmost part of Canada. Others suggest that he landed as far south as Cape Cod. In any case, Leif Erikson was the first European to set foot in North America.
Leif comes from Leifr, an Old Norse naming meaning heir.
Besides fitting in style-wise in the 1960s, he was much in the news. In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson named October 9th Leif Erikson Day, in commemoration of his landing. A few years later, the US Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor, featuring a Viking boldly gazing off a precipice.
Then came Leif Garrett. Born in 1961, he could have inspired a generation of star-struck future moms. Except by the late 1970s, he was embroiled in drug-related scandal, including a catastrophic car crash. He’s back in the public eye now, thanks to nostalgic indulgences like VH-1’s I Love the 70s and celeb editions of reality shows like Fear Factor. For years, Leif had a whiff of cautionary tale about him. But most of today’s parents are too young to remember the teen idol.
Leif Garrett tried to teach world that his name is properly pronounced layf, but you’ll still hear plenty of Americans opt to pronounce it like the unrelated word leaf. This makes for a quandary: do you insist Leif rhymes with Rafe, or do you accept the rhymes-with-leaf default? In Keith and Leigh, the ei combo sounds like ee.
Given our current affection for nature names, Leif does have something of a nature vibe. He sounds like the kind of baby who should be toted around state parks in a frame pack. Leaf brings to mind Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix. (Phoenix originally used the name Leaf in a bid to fit in with his nature-name sibs.)
Leif peaked at #654 in 1970. He left the rankings entirely after 1987. Today, he’s on the upswing in the US, though still comfortably outside of the top 1000.
He also retains his Scandinavian heartiness, though you’re unlikely to meet a child called Leif there. But Vikings, the historical drama that debuted in the US earlier this year, features a minor character by the name. And with another installment of Vikings in the works, parents might be ready to rediscover Leif.
Overall, Leif is both simple and different, familiar and rarely used – a difficult combination to find, especially for a boy’s name.