The baby name Alexander counts as a classic, worn from the ancient world into the present day.
In honor of my son, our Baby Name of the Day is Alexander.
ANCIENT GREEK ORIGINS
There are two contenders for the earliest use of Alexander.
It comes from the Greek name Alexandros. The first element, alexo, means to defend. Andros refers to men.
The Greek goddess Hera was known as Hera Alexandros – literally, Hera, Defender of Men.
There’s also Alaksandu, King of Wilusa. That might sound sci fi, but it’s actually a Bronze Age city, located in modern day Turkey. Alaksandu ruled circa 1280 BC. It might be another version of the same name … or not.
The name appeared in the New Testament, connected with several minor figures.
But there’s no question about the Alexander who made the name legend.
Born in 356 BC, Alexander III of Macedon conquered most of the known world, and became an almost mythological hero in his own time.
Alexander the Great is the kind of historical figure everyone recognizes, immortalized in songs and movies. Known as the “Alexander Romance,” an account of his life mixing fact and legend, circulated as early as the fourth century and was well-known in medieval Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer refers to it in the Canterbury Tales.
Iron Maiden recorded “Alexander the Great” in 1986; Colin Farrell played the role in a 2004 movie titled just Alexander.
Separating fact from fiction is tricky, but what’s certain is that he’s inspired countless parents to choose the name for their sons.
ALEXANDER THROUGH THE AGES
While the name reached dizzying heights of popularity in the 21st century, it’s been in steady use across the ages.
Eight popes, between the years 97 and 1681, answered to the name. At least ten Christian saints, along with plenty of ancient writers, artists, and scientists were Alexander, too.
KINGS and TSARS
Alexander the Great ruled as a king, of course.
Centuries later, kings of kings of Scotland, Poland, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia all wore the name. Three Russian tsars answered to Alexander.
In England, Prince George Alexander Louis is the eldest son of Prince William, and second-in-line to the throne.
Between the royals and the saints, the name is widely used throughout Europe and the English-speaking world.
International variations abound. It’s Aleksandr or Aleksander in Russian and many Slavic languages; Alejandro in Spanish; Alessandro in Italian; Alexandre in French; and Alasdair or Alistair in Scottish, to name just a few.
Given the name’s long history of use, it’s not surprising that a Founding Father was born Alexander.
Or maybe it is, because if you know his story, Alexander Hamilton was a surprising Founding Father.
Born out-of-wedlock in the British West Indies, he was orphaned at a young age and left penniless. But Hamilton cobbled together an education, went to work as a clerk, and eventually found his way to New York City. Before long, he was wrapped up in the burgeoning Revolution.
He’d serve with distinction in the war, and become an architect of the new nation, particularly the financial system.
Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography would eventually inspire Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 musical Hamilton! It transformed a lesser-known Founding Father’s life into an internationally-known story.
POPE and PUSHKIN
Hamilton wasn’t the last notable by the name.
Eighteenth century English poet Alexander Pope and nineteenth century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin come to mind.
So does inventor Alexander Graham Bell, best known as the inventor of the telephone. Scottish physician Alexander Fleming is known for discovering penicillin. Just as the ancient world was shaped by a famous figure by the name, so too is the modern one.
Then there’s Irving Berlin’s hit Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Released in 1911, it became a hit, decade after decade, as new singers recorded it. Bessie Smith, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby were just a few to find success with the song. It inspired a 1938 movie. And it’s on the soundtrack of 1997 blockbuster The Titanic, because, naturally, it really was in the songbook issued to
Broadway legend Ethel Merman recorded a disco version in 1978. This is a song that just won’t quit.
Chances are you’ve heard some version of it, even if you’re not aware.
LAST NAME ALEXANDER
Incidentally, there was a real band leader with the name. Only it was Jack Alexander, a friend of Irving Berlin. Known for his cornet-playing, Berlin made him immortal – even though he’s mostly lost to history.
The surname has been in use for generations. And while forms like Macallister and Alexandrowicz are heard, it’s fairly common as a surname without alteration.
Popular culture sometimes gives the name to legendary bad guys – A Clockwork Orange’s Alex; Superman’s nemesis Alexander Luthor, better known as Lex.
But not always.
Judith Viorst’s award-winning children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and the Alex the Lion from Madagascar and the sequels are kid-friendly.
In the 1980s, a young Michael J. Fox rose to fame as Alex P. Keaton on sitcom Family Ties.
The late Alex Trebek – born George Alexander – hosted Jeopardy from 1984 to 2020, lending Alex a certain intelligence.
The late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen takes it in a high
Baseball great Alex Rodriguez and ice hockey’s Alex Ovechkin are two of many successful athletes by the name.
Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard rose to stardom in True Blood, and most recently starred in The Northman.
Speaking of Alex and Lex, there’s more than one way to shorten Alexander.
Alexei, Alexey, and Alexis are all related names.
Xander, sometimes spelled Zander, was boosted by Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 1990s. Just like Liam from William, it’s now given as an independent name.
Most Als are something else – think Alfredo (Pacino), Alphonse (Capone), Albert (Gore), Alan (Al). But they could be Alexander.
There’s the Slavic Sasha, the re-arranged sounds Dex, and the Scottish Alec, as well as Andy, Xan and more.
BY the NUMBERS
All of this makes it sound like Alexander is a boy name that’s been topping the charts since the beginning of time.
Actually, that’s not true at all.
While the name has always appeared in the US Top 1000, way back in the year 1900 it ranked a modest #93. In the 1930s and 40s, it hovered in the Top 200. It fell to #234 by 1959.
That’s not obscure, but it does mean that names like Gordon, Norman, Bernard, Clarence, Guy, Reginald, and Edwin – names we think of as traditional, but not popular today – all outranked Alexander.
The name started to gain in the 1970s, entering the US Top 100 in 1977 at #97.
By 1990, Alexander ranked #28.
It cracked the Top 20 in the year 2000 and the Top Ten in 2008.
As of 2021, it’s back to #13 – still very popular.
In recent years, it’s also been a Top 100 choice in Poland, Switzerland, Norway, the Czech Republic, and throughout much of Europe.
At the same time, the world met quite a few girls named Alex.
Many of them were Alexandra, of course, a name nearly as popular as the masculine form. Add up Alexa and Alexis and other Alex- names girl Alexes are quite common.
That can make the name feel more common than the numbers already suggest.
Overall, Alexander is a time-tested favorite, an enduring classic with history aplenty.
While it’s among the most popular baby boy names for recent generations, it feels traditional rather than trendy.
Like many current favorites, it’s a longer name, fitting right in with Sebastian and Oliver and Theodore. But it’s also a verastile choice, one that reduces to many a nickname.
While there will always be another Alex, that doesn’t diminish the appeal of this celebrated name.
What do you think of the baby name Alexander?
First published on December 17, 2008, this post was revised and re-posted on December 17, 2012, and again on September 21, 2022.
Waltzing More Than Matilda says
Happy birthday, Alexander!
Alexander has never left the Top 100 in Australia – it’s never gone lower than #85, and for most of the time, it’s been in the 30s or higher. It’s so classic, it’s super-classic!
Strangely, you never get the feeling that there’s “too many Alexanders” around – probably because they all go by other names as their nickname. In fact, I think someone just called Alexander would really stand out as very distinctive.
It’s one of the handsomest classic names for boys there are, I think.
As for nicknames, I notice the British upper-classes tend to go with Xan.
I just saw a wonderful museum exhibition on Alexander the Great the other day so I’m loving the name at the moment 🙂
You missed another origin of the name — Alexander is a Biblical name as well. Mk 15:21; Acts 4:6; 19:33; 1 Tim 1:19,20; 2 Tim 4:14
I know this post is old, but I just discovered this sight and of course was checking it out. As a mom of a Zane, I am always interested in his name and where it may pop up. After typing it in and seeing the posts with the tag, I was bewildered as to why it kept coming up with Alexander. I have never, ever heard of it as a nick name for Alexander…it is way, way too far of a stretch for me. It is actually a version of John. The association really bothers me…and other than having a nephew named Alexander that goes by Al…(ughh, it really suits him) that I’m not fond of, I’m not sure why!
Hi Violetveruca & thanks for visiting! I suspect there are multiple ways to arrive at Zane. The Zane family came to the US in the seventeenth century – their roots run deep, right through the Revolutionary War and up to the author Zane Grey. (His mother was a Zane – his given name at birth was actually Pearl Zane Gray, if you can believe that.)
I’ve heard the John/Zane link via Giovanni/Gianni/Zanni, but it isn’t the only one. There’s also the argument that Zane is a respelling of the Germanic Zahn – teeth.
As for whether it is used as a nickname for Alexander, it certainly isn’t common. (The one Zane/Alexander I know is 30-something.) But then, the rise of Xander/Zander as a nickname argues that we’ll hear more Alexanders called Zane – but also probably more boys named just plain Zane, too!
Anyhow, I just realized that I had a duplicate on my Names of the Day list, so I’m slotting Zane in for October 12. Next time you search, you may just find him. 🙂
Same John from a year ago (what is it about February 27th that makes me click that link? creepy)
To back up the connection you’re making here, yes, the Zander link is actually how we went about getting to Zane. Alexander is an old family name and we really liked both Alexander and Zane, but felt that they sounded too similar with the ‘z’ sound and the ‘n’ sound to give him both names as a first/middle combo.
You’re welcome, John! I think Zane works well as a nickname and I’m glad to hear it wears well on your son.
I don’t quite know how Zane came about. In every language I can think of, the “xan” bit rhymes with “can” rather than “cane” – and yet, if we can get Betsy from Elizabeth and Peggy from Margaret, Zane isn’t such a stretch! 🙂
Well I know I’m a little late to get in my two cents, but we named our son ‘Alexander’ and we have always used ‘Zane’ as a nickname. We were never sure why we went with that and I always wondered if it’s a bit of a stretch. This is one of the other few sources we’ve found to support the use so thanks for mentioning it.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY 🙂
My elder DD turns 4 in January and I’m rather excited – it’s the best age.. they’ve grown out of that terrible 2s stage but are still young enough to be crazy and curious – my niece Lucille is 4 and it’s prefect!!
Anyway, I adore Alexander. He’s one of my favorite classic ‘staple’ names as well – along with Benjamin. He just has a huge amount of strength and grace, whilst his array of nn – my favorite being Alexei – lossen him up a bit!
Happy 4th birthday, Alexei! How exciting!
I like Alexander, but it is just super popular for my taste. It’s definitely strong, masculine and has an air of regal about him, though, which I can’t say is always found in boy names. It seems to be one of the perfect names for a family looking for definitely masculine, but not chest-thumping mcmanly pants.
My favorite historical Alexander is Alekxander Solzhenitsyn.
Happy Birthday Alexei!
Alexander is a really nice, strong name. And such a good history! I like the nickname Xander because I’m a BIG fan of Buffy, and that’s the first place I ever heard it, and he was a really great character. I really like Zane, I never heard that as a nickname for Alexander before, it’s cool. All the Alex- names are great, it’s easy to see why they’re so popular. In French class in high school my name was Alexi, and I just loved it.
Thanks to everyone for the birthday greetings!
Zane was my husband’s first assistant’s nickname for Alexander. I don’t know if he chose it or his parents chose it for him as a child. It wears well, though.
Funny thing about Xander – friends of ours were living in Japan when their son was born. They didn’t have an English language baby naming book, but they did have TV. After watching Buffy re-runs, they decided that Alexander, nn Xander, would be a great choice. But somehow it hasn’t stuck since they returned to the US. He’s Alex. It is very, very difficult to push a nontraditional nickname for common name. Every Trish who has been called Patty would probably agree. 🙂
Laney McDonald says
Happy 4th Birthday Alexei!
I love Alexander, but because of its popularity, I would definitely save it for a middle name. Alexei is a great name too. I like how you chose a unique nickname for your son that is classy and not weird.
Xander/Zander is nice also, but it’s getting a little too common for me. I hear it alot, almost as much as Alex.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY ALEXEI! (For a little Russian flavor: S dnyom rozhdeniya!)
The female versions of Alexander (Alexandria, Alexis, etc.) abound in my circle of friends’ children, but Alexander itself is much less common. I like the female versions, despite their popularity, but Alexander itself is more appealing, probably because it is somewhat less commonly heard (at least in my area – NC). As for the nicknames mentioned, I went to high school with a guy called “Sasha” and no one batted an eyelash at the name, it just was accepted… and he was not Russian. As for Shura, it rings feminine to me – probably because I new a girl who went by Shura in college.
Best wishes to the little birthday boy!
I gotta say I really hate Zander/Xander as a nickname, though. I meant to say that before. It totally annoys me. Its almost as annoying as Topher as a nickname for Christopher. Oh, that one really makes me grind my teeth. Xander annoys me slightly less – but only slightly.
Happy birthday Alexei (great name). Alexander and many of its nicknames, especially Alex, and versions in other languages, and the girls’ versions, are top favorites of mine and one of the names I don’t get tired of even with mass popularity. I think it’s a name you can’t go wrong with.
I love Alexander too – his history, his European Royal flavour, his timelessness and of course his versatility. I have to say as well, that it surprises me how popular he really is when you add up all of his variations because he doesn’t seem over used at all… Picking up on a name that Photquility has mentioned, could I request that Alessandra be a name of the day at some point as I’m totally loving this name at the moment!
I love Alexander, Alex expecially! I always have. My husband loves it too; when he was a boy he wanted to be Alex P. Keaton when he grew up. Yes, that reference does date us, but that was the first Alex experience I had. My aunt is Alexis, named in honor of her father Alex, who died before she was born. She’s 62. My second cousin on the other side is Alexis, goes by Alex. She’s 26. Aunt Alexis’s daughter married an Alex. He’s 30-something. That makes three. So there are enough reasons in my family not to use the name. However, I love it. I wish it were less popular so I could use it, but hubby would never let me get away with Sasha anyway, so it’s a non-starter. Did I mention I also love Alexandra and Alessandra and Alexandria? Because I do. I really, really do.
Happy Birthday Alexi!
4 is fantastic, I’ll agree, Josephine’s halfway through it and I know I’m going to miss it! Alexander has been my favorite classic boys name since, well, forever. I think it’s a great name, despite popularity and if I could get him to go for popular, i would land on Alexander and be happy.
Historically loaded and oh, so strong! it really is a great name and I’m sure your Alexi will be content as he ages.
Happy Birthday ALEXEI!!!
You’ll enjoy 4. It’s a fun year.
Oh, and Abby, I, too am one of the thundering hordes here– Alexandra’s my middle name. I’ve always liked it.
Alexei officially turns four today! It’s quite the age – he insisted on “helping” make cupcakes to take to nursery school today. (No more watching Top Chef re-runs until he’s in bed, I think.) When I look at him, well – he’s just not a baby anymore. I can’t say I didn’t know it was going to happen, but it’s still surprising. (I’m sure this gets more and more shocking as they get older and, you know, drive. And vote.)
Since Alexander honors my father-in-law, it was the only name we even considered for a boy. And I can’t say I’m unhappy with it – but I do remain surprised by the absolute thundering hordes of children with some version of this name.