Cover of "Back to the Future"
Cover of Back to the Future

Editor’s Note: Today’s post was originally published on October 6, 2008, and revised and updated on January 16, 2012, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

If you came of age in the 80s, today’s choice might conjure up DeLoreans and mad scientists. But it would be a mistake to think of this time-traveling name as hopelessly stuck in the past.

Thanks to Another for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day: Martin.

Michael J. Fox is best known for two roles: Alex P. Keaton on television’s Family Ties and Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy. While Alex and company gained during the 80s and 90s to become one of the most popular names for boys in the US today, Martin quietly faded. He’d been a regular member of the Top 100 from 1880 to 1970. In 1985, when the original Back to the Future debuted, he stood at a respectable #132. Today he’s #258 – far from unknown, but certainly not trendy.

Does that make Martin an overlooked gem? Maybe. Martin comes from Mars, the Roman god of war. He may have evolved from an earlier Etruscan deity called Maris, but Maris was more about plowshares than swords.

As the Roman Empire expanded, the name Martinus was in use; in fact, a Roman soldier wore the name. He had been baptized as a Christian earlier, but his life changed forever when he met a poorly-clad beggar by the roadside. The day was cold, so Martinus removed his cloak, cut it in half, and gave one part to the beggar. That night Martinus dreamed that the beggar had been Christ himself, and took it as a signal to leave the army for a life of service to the church.

Saint Martin of Tours would become one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. The site of his grave attracted so many pilgrims that the record includes multiple expansions of the cathedral. The Kings of France were devotees of Martin, too.

The name entered widespread use in honor of the saint. In French-speaking countries, you’ll hear the emphasis on the second syllable – mar TAN. In English, MAR tin is the accepted pronunciation.

Notables have worn this name all over the Western world, including:

  • Several additional saints and popes.
  • Medieval rulers of Sicily and Aragon.
  • Philosopher Martin Heidegger.
  • Religious reformer and founder of the Lutheran church, Martin Luther.
  • Civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • American president Martin Van Buren.
  • Filmmaker Martin Scorcese.

It’s also a common surname. He picks up quite a bit of style as the last name of Rat Pack actor and crooner Dean Martin, and maybe even a hint of cultural currency thanks to pop sensation Ricky Martin and Coldplay’s Chris Martin.

Martin Luther King, 1964
Martin Luther King, Jr.; Image via Wikipedia

But between St. Martin and Martin Luther King, Jr., this name has serious, smart overtones.

Name your son Martin today and he can confidently study abroad nearly anywhere in Europe or South America without fear that his name will be misunderstood. Martin is a chart-topper in modern Norway and and Chile. He also ranks in the Top 100 in Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Spain.

While Martin might not have quite the throwback cool vibe of Henry or Oliver, he’s an undeniable classic with a long history of use, one that might follow other forgotten classics like Frederick and George back into use. If Tristan can rank in the Top 100, why not Martin?

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. This is my bf’s name, but with the Spanish pronounciation. Mar-teen. I’ve always preferred that pronounciation, personally. We call him Marty though, so I don’t even get to enjoy the pretty sound of it! haha!

  2. I really like Martin, but then Oliver, Henry and George are also right up my alley. I had an old neighbor named Marten and I always liked the way the Dutch form is also the name of an animal. Although Martin can also a nature name since martins are also a type of bird.

  3. I like Martin, but would probably go for Marvin before Martin. I seriously like Marvin. But then I did use 2 of the 5 names you mention in the final paragraph for my kid’s first and middle, so Martin is up right my alley, I guess.

  4. I used to be iffy on the name Martin but then I played Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and the hero-character Martin Septim made me love the name <3