This is one of those suggestions that we almost dismissed. Too fusty, we thought. Hopelessly out of style.
But after a moment’s reflection, we found much to love in today’s Name of the Day: Clarence. Thanks to Lola for opening our eyes.
While Clarence strikes many as a very old name – and indeed, statistics suggest that most men of this name are now in their dotage – it is actually of fairly recent vintage, though his roots run deep.
Back in the days of William the Conquerer, the Norman Lord Richard FitzGilbert was created Earl of Clare, after his holdings in Suffolk, England. FitzGilbert’s descendants adopted the surname de Clare, amassed lands in Ireland and eventually gave their name to County Clare. Clarence emerges as a surname related to the family and the various locations, and as the name of a dukedom created by King Richard III for his son Lionel in the 1300s. The story comes full circle here, as the king was inspired by Lionel’s bride’s family – the de Clares.
If it sounds simple, it isn’t. The meaning is tangled in a web of possible inspirations. The Latin clarus is the source of the word clear, and some claim that Clare, Suffolk was named because of the clear waters of the local river. There’s also a link to Clarensis, a Roman title used by the Britons and said to mean “illustrious.” Others contend that the Gaelic clár means board and was used to describe the simple board bridges built in the area that eventually became Clare.
Regardless, Clarence is actually a relatively novel given name, entering common use in the 19th century. When the US first gathered statistics on baby names, Clarence was a hottie. In 1882, he broke into the Top 20 and stayed there until 1910. He remained a Top 50 pick until 1935 and was a Top 100 choice through 1951. He’s remained in the Top 1000 ever since, though his current rank – #845 – is the least popular to date.
Plenty of throwback names are hot today, for boys and girls. If you can call your daughter Hannah or Hazel, Esther or Mabel, why not Clarence (or Arthur or Walter) for a boy? They’re not such a huge leap from Henry and Charlie, Theo and Will. With musicians Elvis Costello and Diana Krall naming their sons Frank and Dexter, comedian Rainn Wilson choosing Walter and Jack Nicholson using Raymond, it’s reasonable to imagine a newborn Murray, Albert or Ernest.
Fictional Clarences have appeared throughout the 20th century. In It’s a Wonderful Life, he’s the angel who earns his wings convincing George Bailey that he’s a lucky man, indeed.
But our favorite Clarence – and the one who gives this name an indie edge – is Clarence Worley, the hero of 1993’s True Romance. The movie is part-love story, part-violent action thriller. The character was played by Christian Slater, and while we won’t reveal the ending, he does get the girl – who goes by the name Alabama.
If you’re looking for a flesh and blood inspiration, there’s the famous attorney Clarence Darrow, best known for defending John Scopes, a Tennessee high school teacher who dared tell his students about evolution back in 1925.
While the name reads a bit on the serious, bookish side, there are two strong nickname options. Lola pointed out that Clare is one possible short form, if you can overlook the chances that he’ll share his name with a female classmate. And we think that Clay works nicely, too.
Clarence is so dusty that he’s daring, and so far out of use that he starts to sound fresh. We may be just one starbaby away from seeing Clarence turn around and climb the popularity charts again.