It’s a Gaelic-flavored surname with a long history of use, but today suggests an unusual Goth edge that either discourages – or delights – parents searching for a simple but uncommon name for a boy.
Thanks to Kim for suggesting today’s Name of the Day: Cullen.
There’s much dispute over Cullen’s origins and meaning. Odds are that there’s more than one story behind this fairly common last name. The contenders are mostly Gaelic and English. It could be an Anglicized form of Ó Coileáin, which means roughly “puppy,” or Ó Cuilinn, which refers to holly. Or it could be a place name related to the village of Cullen, Scotland, or even to Cologne, Germany. If that last one seems like a stretch, remember that the city’s name is Köln in German and refers to the Latin word colonia.
Flip open a baby book, and you’ll find a host of meanings attributed to the name, including chieftain and handsome. We might be missing something, but none of these seem easy to substantiate.
Choose this name for your son today, and chances are that at least some people will think immediately of the reigning vampire family of the moment: the Cullens, of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series. The vampires’ first names are an appealing bunch, including Rosalie, Carlisle, Esme and Jasper. We concede that calling your son Cullen is a far cry from naming him Lestat. But with Meyer’s series topping the bestseller charts and the movie version headed for the big screen, this name does skew a little more dark-eyeliner-and-Doc-Martens than bagpipes-and-haggis.
Fictional bloodsuckers aside, Cullen has been used as a surname for generations. Athletes, academics and aristocrats are among the bearers, and Countee Cullen’s poetry is among the stand-outs of the Harlem Renaissance.
As a first name, Cullen first charts in the US in 1880. While it does not appear consistently in the late 19th or early 20th century rankings, census records suggest that it was in steady, if infrequent use. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when Gaelic-tinged choices like Brian, Ryan and Sean were gaining, that Cullen cemented himself in the Top 1000. In 1997, he hit a high of #506; today he stands at #769.
That makes Cullen about as popular as Soren, Humberto or Memphis – not outlandish, but certainly not familiar to most.
Perhaps Cullen’s biggest downfall is his similarity to Callum, a smash hit in the UK that seems poised to gain in the US, too. Some parents might also dislike Cullen’s similarity to the verb cull. While the surface meaning – to choose or pick, separating the better quality from the inferior – doesn’t argue against the use of the name, the noun culling tends to refer to the chaff rather than the wheat. There’s a tinge of rejection about Cullen that gives us pause.
Vampires and sound-alike words aside, however, this remains a valid surname choice that could be especially appropriate for families with Scottish roots or the name on their family tree.