Friendly and upbeat, the baby name Owen tops plenty of parents’ favorites lists.
Thanks to Bevin for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
WELSH, IRISH, GREEK?
Chances are that several similar names collided to form the baby name Owen.
Possible meanings include:
- Youth, from the Welsh word eoghunn or the Gaelic ioghunn
- Well born, if the name is a Welsh form of the Greek Eugene
- Yew tree, from the Irish name Eoghan, though, again, it might have ties to Eugene
It also gets mixed up with John, thanks to the Scottish Eoin and Euan.
LEGEND & MYTH
Back in the day, the name was spelled Owain. And Owain? He sat at Arthur’s round table, where he was also known as Sir Ywain or Yvain.
Ywain was based on a historical figure, a sixth century king who died in battle shortly after inheriting the throne. The legend flourished in Welsh tradition. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about him in the 1100s, and the figure then migrated to France. Owain featured in many a popular medieval tale, before making it into Arthurian legend.
In one of the most popular stories, Ywain wins the heart of his beloved, but then heads off on adventure, forgets his wife, and has to convince her to take him back. He also slays a dragon and rescues a lion, keeping the latter as a companion. You know, the typical stuff of medieval heroism.
SHAKESPEARE & SAINTS
There’s a sixth century Saint Eoghan of Ireland, and a Saint-Ouen on the map in France, named for a seventh century saint by the name. Both are sometimes Anglicized as Owen.
Shakespeare borrowed the name of Welsh resistance fighter Owain Glyn Dwr for Henry IV, and spelled the name Owen, too.
In between, there’s Owen Tudor, an essential part of cementing his family’s claim to the kingship. His grandson, King Henry VII, would become the first Tudor king of England.
This suggests that the name stayed in steady use through the centuries, a name that never fell entirely out of favor.
The baby name Owen appears in the US Top 1000 every year, stretching back to 1880, the very first year for which data is recorded.
But it’s never been very common. No modern kings or presidents answer to the name. There is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the 1920s, Owen Davis. And producer Owen Bradley helped propel country legends like Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty to success.
It’s the name of Luke Skywalker’s uncle in Star Wars, but he’s a minor character. Even though Luke caught on as the space opera became a blockbuster and then a part of pop culture history, his uncle’s name remained relatively obscure.
John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany was published in 1989. Despite being a bestseller, the book failed to boost the name, too.
SALINGER & WILSON
So what happened?
First, Party of Five debuted on Fox in September of 1994. The story of the orphaned Salinger siblings eventually won the 1996 Golden Globe for Best Television Series – Drama, but the impact on names came sooner. The family consisted of eldest brother Charlie, middle son Bailey, eldest sister Julia, younger sister Claudia, and the baby, Owen.
In 1994, Owen ranked #454. A year later, it leapt to #350.
Then along came an actor.
Owen Wilson – brother to fellow actors Luke and Andrew – played Dignan in 1996’s Bottle Rocket. The Wes Anderson crime-comedy flopped at the box office, but won critical acclaim.
The name leapt from #350 in 1995 to #270 in 1996.
Party of Five was going strong, and Wilson’s star was rising.
By 2000, the series was ending, but Wilson co-starred in blockbusters like Shanghai Noon and, a year later, Zoolander.
But Wilson isn’t known for just screwball comedies. He’s had roles in action flicks, like Behind Enemy Lines, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for The Royal Tenenbaums. An entire generation knows him as the voice of Disney-Pixar race car Lightning McQueen.
No question that the television series and the actor’s popularity helped more parents discover this long-neglected choice.
21ST CENTURY STAPLE
From overlooked name in the history books to a favorite choice of the 21st century, the baby name Owen has transformed.
Fictional characters in Torchwood and Gray’s Anatomy have answered to the name.
Plenty of celebrities have chosen the name for their sons; singer Michelle Branch even used it for a daughter.
When I last updated this post in 2014, I asked if readers thought the name would “crack the US Top 25 in a few more years.” As of 2016, Owen made it all the way to #23 – the name’s most popular showing ever. It fell to #25 in 2018, but remains well-liked and widely used.
A combination of deep roots and a modern, upbeat sound make this name a natural, pleasing choice for families today. Call it a modern traditional – an enduring choice at home in the twenty-first century.
Would you consider the baby name Owen for a son?
First published on December 18, 2009, this post was revised substantially and re-posted on August 25, 2014, again on April 11, 2018, and again on August 1, 2020.
I love Eoghan, but I can’t imagine inflicting it as a first name on a boy in the U.S. A wildly variant “non-phonetic” alternate of a name in the top 25 (#1 in my state last year)? My kid would spend his life spelling his name and responding to calls of “Ee-o-gan?” Sadly, it’s been relegated as “middle name only” territory!
Mandie L. says
I considered Owain for some of my kids, but it never made the top of the list. Now I have a nephew Owen, so it’s not an option for us anymore.
I’ve seen 2 different Irish forms of the name used: Eoin vs Eoghan, both pronounced “Owen”. I was always told that Eoin is Irish for ‘John’. behindthename.com tells me that that’s true, whereas Eoghan is possibly derived from Eugene. So, 2 different names rather than variations on 1 name?? Interesting….
Also, I have a lovely nephew named Owen Michael 🙂
Owen is a name that I really liked when I was much younger. When I was in middle school and high school, I thought I’d have a little Owen one day. It’s gotten considerably more popular since and my taste has grown since then. Owen would not sound right as part of our sibset and I can’t imagine using it now. Still, it gives me happy feelings to hear it and I totally understand the appeal. Strong, handsome name!
I first heard this name on a television series called Gargoyles when I was a kid, and somehow its still one of my favorite names. Owen was the quiet, calm, and reliable personal assistant of a lead character on the show. He later turns out to be Puck, of Shakespearean fame. (Puck is another great name, except for that it obviously sounds like a certain expletive. But I do remember seeing a Puck on one of the Real World MTV series waaaay back in the day. His parents were really brave…) There’s also an Agent Owen in the series 24. Can you tell I watch a lot of tv?
Personally, the name just does not grab me. There is nothing attractive or pleasant sounds to me. It isn’t even bleh – it’s honestly a name that I dislike. I’m not American. so I don’t have to endure it often (because of its escalated popularity lately)
The Welsh and Galeic links do redeem it a bit (I’m IN LOVE with names from the Irish specifically, and then the Welsh and then Scottish . The Eugene link is also not a flattering link, personally
Overall, it’s not a bad name-just not a name that appeals to me. However, if someone else likes it – go for it! What truly matters is how you feel about the name- not someone else’s opinion
Owen was also Danny DeVito’s character in Throw Momma From The Train. I remember Momma screaming “Owen!” throughout the movie!
I am with Photoquilty, this is one male name that just irks me, though my reasons are similar yet different, I went to school with an Owen who was a problem child, plus, I find it very soft and weak. I just have never seen the appeal.
Charlotte Vera says
I liked A Prayer for Owen Meany — it was a very thought-provoking and well-written book — but Owen Meany himself was such a strong character that I’m not sure I could ever use the name on a child.
I agree – he isn’t the kind of character you’d name a child after … admirable though he may be.
Thank you for doing Owen. (is that the right way to say it or will I arouse suspicion with your significant other?!?)
I still prefer Eoghan or Eoin rather than Owen. I love reading the history of names and learning the associations between seemingly different names. I think most of that huge list I wrote were family names so some are especially interesting.
I have long hated this name, thanks to John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I hated the book, hated Owen Meany. I just can’t ever get over that association. The name seems to be getting more and more popular lately, too – and it’s on of those names like Caleb and Elijah, that just stick in my craw. Oh well. On to next week’s batch! I’m looking forwad to it.
Owain Yeoman is a very handsome British actor currently in the cast of The Mentalist.
Ian is one of those British names that has been warming in the States. Other distinctly British names–to me–include Nigel, Alastair, Cleave and St. John (Sinjin). I wonder if those will ever rise in popularity here.
Love St.John! Pity it’s so damn poncy. Decent enough middle name material I think.
Here in NZ, Nigel and Alastair are firmly middle aged names and perhaps slightly crusty although Alastair still retains a certain handsomeness. Nigel is unfortunately considered extremely nerdy/unattractive which may lend an explanation to the phrase “Nigel no mates” aka someone with no friends.
It’s a perfectly decent name, it’s just very blah. I’ve seen it on so many middle-aged to elderly men here in NZ. It’s not in our top 100 so that doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m sure it will be back in fashion at some point as I’m seeing a few in the Aussie BAs. It’s slightly amusing seeing it so high in the US chart but at the same time I’m quite pleased.
Thinking on it, I’d liken Owen to the Ian situation here. Considered a very dated/ typical senior citizen name in NZ (and possibly Australia too) but yet it’s in the US top 100 which is rather neat.
I like Owen. You mentioned the French Ivain…is it related maybe to Ivan? Which of course is a form of John…
The theory is that Ivain/Yvain evolved from the Breton form of Owain, but that’s up for debate. I doubt there’s any link to Ivan, if only because the medieval French form of John is usually Jehan. But that’s a top-of-my-head guess … it would be cool if there were a connection! Do all male names lead back to John and James? Hmmm ….