Conventional wisdom holds that once a masculine moniker is widely used for girls, it cannot be bestowed on a son.

Thanks to Laney McDonald for suggesting one choice that could prove that rule wrong. Our Name of the Day is Kelly.

For girls, Kelly peaked at #10 in 1977, and spent 1968 through 1980 in the Top Twenty. A lot of Kellys are having children of their own these days. (During the 1970s, Kelli, Kellie, Keli and Kellee all charted in the Girls’ Top 1000, too.)

But the impeccably Irish name was once worn by far more men than women. A sixth century saint wore the name, keeping it in use through the years. In fact, Kelly for a boy was a Top 200 pick from the 50s through the 70s – just as it was gaining for girls. He didn’t leave the US Top 1000 until 2002. Variant version Kelley hasn’t ranked for boys since 1982.

Regardless of spelling or gender, all the Kellys trace their roots back to the Old Irish Ceallach. Like many a given name, Ceallach inspired a surname, usually seen as Ó Ceallaigh. The exact origins are debated:

  • It could come from ceall – church;
  • Others connect it to ceallach – war;
  • Bright-headed is another traditional meaning, though that’s harder to trace;
  • A few other sources link Kelly to the Welsh celli or Gaelic coille – grove.

Today, it’s a common surname. During the twentieth century, kelly also became a shade of green.

Those who have worn it include:

  • Actor and dancer (think Singin’ in the Rain) Gene Kelly;
  • Hollywood royalty turned just-plain-royalty Grace Kelly;
  • Not-quite-a-princess Autumn Kelly, married Peter Phillips – and became the granddaughter-in-law of England’s Queen Elizabeth II;
  • The late Heath Ledger played Australian outlaw/folk hero Ned Kelly in a 2003 big screen adaptation;
  • The original American Idol, Kelly Clarkson;
  • Perky morning show co-host Kelly Ripa;
  • We met Kelly Osbourne, daughter of aging rocker Ozzy, on reality TV;
  • Pro surfer Kelly Slater works to reclaim the name for the boys, as do a handful of NFL, NHL and MLB notables;
  • There’s also ER alum Kellie Martin;
  • Along with Skipper, one of Barbie’s little sister dolls is called Kelly;

But most famous Kellys can be found on the small screen. Aspiring actresses take note – if you’re offered a role as Kelly? Take it. There’s:

  • Charlie’s Angels‘ Kelly Garrett;
  • Married with Children’s Kelly Bundy;
  • The Office’s Kelly Kapoor;
  • Saved by the Bell’s Kelly Kapowski;
  • 90210’s Kelly Taylor.

Today, Kelly comes in at #248 for girls and is unranked for boys. While Kelly is still in use, she’s been eclipsed by Kaylie, Kinley and company – none of which sound especially fresh.

But somehow on a boy, Kelly seems interesting again. Charmed alum Holly Marie Combs (she played Piper) chose it for her third son, Kelley James. (He’s little brother to Finley Arthur and Riley Edward.)

It’s too soon to say if Kelly will cross back to the boys’ side – but on the long list of names that have been borrowed, he seems among the most likely contenders.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I always disliked girly names on guys but my son was in school with a boy named Kellie (yes, with the ie, not a y) and I’ve come to like it. What I found interesting is that he has three younger brothers and they all have names that sound like girls.

    There’s Kellie, Kacie, Krissie, and Katie. That’s the order they were born and you notice that, in my opinion, they got girlyr with each boy. (Katie, goes by the initials KT.)

    I think maybe the family really wanted daughters. Krissie, by the way, is now in high and quite a football player. I think someone would be ill-advised to tease him about his name. He’s a BIG kid.

    1. I have to agree that even with me being one who likes unisex or softer names for boys that some of those names are a stretch for a boy. Kellie and Kacie would easily be usable in my opinion if they were spelled Kelly and Casey (or some other “standard” spelling), but the spellings used in that sibset make them girlier in my opinion. Krissie is barely passable, maybe a little more so if it were a nickname for Christopher or some other Chris/Kris name. Katie on a boy (unless it is strictly an initial nickname) is a downright “Boy Named Sue” type name to me (unlike Krissie I can’t think of any masculine names right off hand that would easily lend to Katie as a nickname).

      1. For the nickname Katie, Kato is the only one I can think of.

        I really wish there were more options for this one, since my mom is Kathy and I’d love to honor her in a son’s name.

  2. I have 2 male Kelly’s in my family. My brother-in-law gave himself the nickname “Kelly” because he is a big fan of R. Kelly. I refuse to call him that because his real name is the dashing Jude, which I love!

    My husband’s cousin’s son (yes, that is a mouthful), goes by the nickname Kelly as well. I’m not sure how that came about.

    Both of my Kelly’s are Nigerians living in Spain and Ireland, respectively.

    I don’t love it for either, because their real names are more interesting to me. I don’t really like Kelly for male or female. It could be because my full name is Shelly, so it’s so close to Kelly. And the sheer abundance of Kelly’s in their assorted spellings in my generation makes the name still tired for me.

  3. I like Kelly for a boy, hate it for a girl. My nephew is named Kelly. He is a junior. My sister then named her next son Aubrey….I can’t wait to see what her next child is named!

  4. I also like Kelly on a boy but find the female version too much linked with vapid teens. Boys with girls’ names have a certain charm. Bewildertrix, I like Ashley too! Although I would still be hesitant to use it myself as a first name, I love the combo Alexander Ashely. Lauren is another that should come back to the male side.

    1. “Although I would still be hesitant to use it myself as a first name”

      It’s something I still ponder despite living in NZ where Ashley is still used on boys albeit not as frequently as girls. I spotted another little Ashley in the paper the other day.

      Alexander Ashley is lovely.

      There are lots of male names I’d love to see come back, one being Meredith.