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.