Thanks to Annelise for suggesting Afton as our Baby Name of the Day.
AFTON: PLACE NAME
Borrowing river names for our children might seem novel, but it isn’t so. We’ve been calling our kids Jordan ever since the Crusaders made their way home from the Holy Land.
The original River Afton sits in Ayrshire, Scotland. Also known as Afton Water, the name’s meaning and origins have proved elusive.
As a first name, it appeared in the US Top 1000 as early as 1907, and spent about fifteen years hugging the edges of the popularity charts.
So how does the name of a small Scottish river make the popularity charts, when the Nile and mighty Mississippi fail to do so?
Blame a poet.
Scotland’s favorite son, Robert Burns, was born in Ayrshire.
He penned Sweet Afton in 1791.
It’s worth noting that the only given name in Robert Burns’ poem is Mary:
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
But that’s not what stayed with us. Instead, plenty of places borrowed the literary river name, including over two dozen cities and towns in the US.
Interest in Burns, both for literary reasons and as a Scottish national hero, seems to have been high in the early twentieth century.
Looking at a list of Robert Burns memorials established from the turn of the twentieth century into the 1920s, there’s no shortage. Massachusetts and Milwaukee; Atlanta and San Francisco; Denver and St. Louis; Florida and Wyoming. The list goes on.
It’s easy to imagine that naming a daughter Afton might’ve appealed to many Burns admirers, explaining the name’s rise in popularity. It was also used as a boy’s name in the same era, though always in smaller numbers.
Burns’ poem is often set to music, and frequently sung to the tune of Away in a Manger.
It’s not the only Afton, either.
Afton Down, located on the Isle of Wight, was the site of the second Isle of Wight music festival, in 1970. The line-up included The Who, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix. There were more attendees than at Woodstock.
Acoustic trio Nickel Creek covered the song in 2000.
Lori at The Real Cruze family mentions that the Nickel Creek rendition inspired them to chose the name for their youngest. She’s not alone; the song comes up fairly often in discussions of the name.
AFTON ARRIVES IN TEXAS
But it wasn’t music that helped this Scottish river become a popular baby girl’s name in the US. Nope, credit goes to Dallas, as in the prime time soap sensation about a family rich on Texas oil.
Afton Cooper appears in the fourth season of the series, joining the cast in 1981. The name ranked in the US Top 1000 in 1982 and 1983.
American actress Audrey Landers has played the part from the 1980s to the present day.
And while it didn’t really catch on as a girl’s given name at the time, the character returned with the 2012 reboot of the series – coinciding with another uptick in the use of the name.
So far, the baby name Afton has yet to return to the US Top 1000.
A few more obscure references:
- In 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot smokes Sweet Afton cigarettes. So does a Peaky Blinders character. They’re the real deal, manufactured in Ireland starting in 1919 and said to be a favorite of sophisticated Parisians, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Louis Malle.
- Afton Smith appeared in movies like Fried Green Tomatoes and Reality Bites, and Afton Williamson plays Officer Talia Bishop on The Rookie.
Fun fact: Afton is the Swedish word for evening – though it does not appear to be used as a given name in Sweden.
Similar-sounding names, from Ashton to Addison, have had their moments for our children. It makes Afton sound less like a place name and more like a perfect baby name choice.
In 2021, 64 girls and 10 boys received the name. That’s far from a new high, but it’s also not unknown.
If you’re after something literary and rare, a tailored name with a built-in lullaby, the baby name Afton might be a promising option. And if a Scottish heritage choice matters? Then this name checks every box.
What do you think of the baby name Afton? Is it better for a boy or a girl?
This post was originally published on March 13, 2009. It was revised substantially and re-posted on February 9, 2015; February 20, 2020; and July 6, 2022.
Special thanks to reader Afton for suggesting that her post needed an update!