Thanks to Another and Katharine for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
Ask people to name a famous King and many will answer Arthur.
Some believe the legends are based on a historical figure, possibly Artognou of Tintangel in Cornwall or Athrwys ap Meurig of Wales. Even a second century Roman military commander, Lucius Artorius Castus, has been suggested. The debate remains unresolved.
We all know the bones of the story: Arthur ruled the most enchanting Camelot. He earned the right by pulling a sword from a stone. He loved the fair Guinevere, but she broke his heart by falling for Lancelot, one of Arthur’s knights.
Speaking of knights, Arthur formed a most extraordinary group of heroes, seating them at a Round Table, and insisting they fight for good.
Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded the story in the 1130s, in his not-really-historical History of the Kings of Britain.
Others followed. In the late 15th century Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur replaced it, only to be supplanted by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, published in installments from the 1850s to 1880s.
More recently, the Tony-award winning musical Camelot debuted on Broadway in 1960 and hit the silver screen in 1967. More movies came in 2004 and 2017. That barely scratches the surface.
BEAR, EAGLE, STONE
With so many possible origins, the name’s meaning seems elusive, too.
Bear, from the Celtic word artos.
Eagle, from the Germanic arn, which survives in names like Arnold.
Stone, from an Irish Gaelic word.
Most seem to agree that the first is most likely, which puts Arthur in the company of other bear-adjacent names like Theodore.
Meaning and origin aside, the name remained in sparing use over the centuries.
Henry VIII’s older brother was Arthur, Prince of Wales, but he died before their dad. It was likely an attempt to link his lineage back to the legendary King Arthur.
The name remained traditional, but not especially common.
And then along came Field Marshall Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, named for his paternal grandfather. That Arthur grew up to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.
Suddenly, Arthur was hot.
Queen Victoria named her third son (and seventh child) Arthur William Patrick. Not only did the Duke of Wellington serve as his godfather, the two shared a birthday.
From the nineteenth century onward, the baby name Arthur has been in steady use. Notables by the name include:
- Sherlock Holmes creator, Arthur Conan Doyle and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke
- Philosopher Schopenhauer, playwright Miller, and Italian conductor Toscanini
- Playwright Arthur Miller
- Tennis great Arthur Ashe
The baby name Arthur brings to mind fictional characters, too:
- There’s aardvark Arthur Read, of children’s books and PBS cartoon fame
- Arthur Dent, the hero of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy
- It’s the given name of Aquaman
- Dudley Moore’s character in the 1981 movie Arthur, who abandons his family fortune for true love
- And, of course, there’s Arthur Weasley, patriarch of the red-headed Weasley clan in the Harry Potter series
BY THE NUMBERS
Arthur has always appeared in the US Top 1000. It ranked in the US Top 20 into the 1920s. It only left the Top 100 after the 1960s.
By 2010, the name reached an all-time low, barely remaining in the Top 400.
But that’s when things started to change. The name has climbed consistently over the last decade, from #390 in 2010 to #230 today.
READY FOR REVIVAL
An early Cougar Town epsiode saw Jules imagining the name for a future son. And Selma Blair welcomed son Arthur Saint in 2011.
It coincides with the name’s early rise in use.
There’s no question that parents are looking at the baby name Arthur with fresh eyes. With Henry in the Top Twenty, and Theodore not far behind, the quest for exciting, but traditional boy names is on.
Arthur seems poised to be one of the up-and-comers.
What do you think of the baby name Arthur? Would you consider it for a son?
First published on August 4, 2008, this post was revised on July 15, 2020.