Name of the Day: Olwen

If Olive and Opal are fashionable choices, why not this Welsh appellation?

Thanks to Hanalise and Corinne for suggesting Olwen as Name of the Day.

Most Welsh names use -wyn for masculine names and -wen for feminine. In the US, it is hard to imagine a boy called Olwyn. Even in the UK, feminine Olywns can be found.

The first Olwen was a legendary maiden, the daughter of the giant Yspaddaden. Dad had heard tell that he’d meet his death when Olwen married, so he’d developed a knack for sending away would-be suitors.

Then along came Culhwch. Culhwch was more motivated than the average prince because he’d been cursed to marry Olwen or remain a bachelor. The tales of Culhwch’s feats of strength and derring-do were the subject of many a medieval tale. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are credited with giving Culhwch the assist as he completed his Herculean labors. The couple wed and Yspaddaden meets his maker.

It’s quite the story. While the name Olwen might sound homely at first, the legend can change perceptions dramatically.

Her meaning comes from gwen – fair or white and ol – footprint.

Real life Olwens include:

  • Playwright Olwen Wymark;
  • Historian Olwen Hufton;
  • Actress Olwen Fouéré;
  • Irish politician Olwyn Enright.

None of them are exactly household names. The actress favors serious theater, a medium not known for launching popular baby names in our day.

How would Olwen wear on an American girl born in 2010? She’s a true rarity in the US, never cracking the Top 1000. But Welsh names have featured in the US Top 100, even the Top Ten. Gladys and Jennifer are two former chart-toppers with Welsh roots. And JRR Tolkein’s Eowyn and Arwen surface more and more since the Lord of the Rings triology hit the big screen. If you favor frills-free names for girls, Olwen might sound right at home alongside Tamar or Ingrid.

Eowyn and Arwen share something else with Olwen – they all begin with vowels.

Here’s a bit of onomastic trivia: between 1909 and 1969, none of the US Top Five had ever started with a vowel. In 1970, Amy entered the Top Five. Angela, Amanda, Ashley and Emily followed. In 2005, four of the Top Five started with vowels (Emily, Emma, Abigail and Olivia) for the first time ever. The names had changed, but in 2008, four out of five still started with a vowel.

Even with all of these factors conspiring in her favor, Olwen would make a truly unusual choice in the US. But she’s not an unwearable one, especially if your background is Welsh.

Or possibly Elvish.

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Anneliese Olwen was on my (long) short list for a while – after my Great Aunts Olwen, Elizabeth and Great Grandmother Anna. I love her in the middle!

Not a fan. I suppose it’s perfectly decent and I do like many Welsh names but it has a distinctly “grumpy and frumpy old farmer’s wife” vibe for me thanks to one woman. Olwen isn’t common here but you will encounter it. However, Bronwyn and the modernized Raewyn are definitely more popular/mainstream. All three seem to be found on older females although I know of two younger 20-something Bronwyns also.

Oh, I’m so glad that you did Olwen!!! I’ve always loved it. I think according to legend she was so beautiful that four white flowers sprang up in her every footprint. It does sound like Owen, but I think it’s such a great choice for a middle name.

Me, too, Sarah! As it happens, I have a Great Aunt Olwen. Or I did – she died before I was born. I always wondered about her name. My grandmother, her MUCH younger sister, used to say that Olwen was the Welsh form of David. Clearly no. And yet, none of the other kids had Welsh names, or even usual names – George, Elizabeth, Irene. So I wish I knew more … but alas, the story is lost.

Yeah, when I see it written down, I see “Owen with an L” and that makes me think “boy” too.

The -wen sound makes me think of the name Morwenna. I’d never heard the name until I went to university (in the UK) and there were 2 of them in my class. One went by “Wenna”, which I thought was pretty cool.