Thanks to Another and Katharine for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
THE LEGEND OF KING ARTHUR
Ask people to name a famous King and many will answer Arthur.
Some believe the Arthurian 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.
One more fun theory for star-gazers. Arcturus is among the brightest stars in the night sky. It means “Guardian of the Bear” in Greek, and has roots in mythology. But some speculate that the personal name Arthur was borrowed directly from the star for the legendary sixth century King Arthur of Britain.
In several languages, the ‘h’ drops out, and the name becomes Artur or Arturo. Nicknames Art and Artie are the obvious choices, though there’s no need to shorten a two-syllable name.
Meaning and origin aside, the name remained in sparing use over the centuries.
Henry VIII’s older brother was Prince Arthur, 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.
Usage spiked, inspired by the courageous military hero.
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. This Prince Arthur spent much of his career in the military, was eventually created the Duke of Connaught.
From the nineteenth century onward, the baby name Arthur has been in steady use. Notables by the name include:
- Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir 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:
- Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter gave us the tortured Arthur Dimmesdale
- There’s aardvark Arthur Read, of children’s books and PBS cartoon fame
- Arthur Dent, the hero of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy
- It’s the given name of Aquaman
- Beginning in 1974, Happy Days introduced us to Arthur Fonzarelli – the Fonz
- 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 #155 as of 2021.
That puts the baby name Arthur close to the Top 100 most popular baby names … again.
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 and Theodore in the Top Ten, the quest for exciting, but traditional boy names is on. It’s a storied name with a strong sense of honor and nobility.
There’s no question that Arthur is among 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; May 28, 2022; and again on February 21, 2023.