Thanks to Kelly for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
LAST NAME FIRST
Like Riley and Kennedy, Rowan started out as an Irish surname.
The original would’ve been something like Ó Ruadháin, from ruadh – red.
The given name Ruadhán dates back centuries, too. There’s a Saint Ruadhán from the 500s, one of the twelve apostles of Ireland.
A minor mythological figure answered to the name, too. And in his story, a tantalizing hint. The color red was associated with impetuous behavior – a stereotype for red-heads that persists today – but also courage and strength.
In other cases, Rowan might be a Scottish take on Rowland, reached by dropping the L sound.
A handful of impressive bearers includes:
- During the nineteenth century, Archibald Hamilton Rowan inherited beaucoup bucks but ended up a radical anyhow, advocating for Irish liberty and the rights of the poor, in a dramatic fashion. He once wielded a shillelagh in a Dublin dining club to make a point.
- A New Jersey engineer-turned-philanthropist has a university named in his honor.
- There’s also a Civil War admiral who served the Union Navy. His career spanned 63 years, one of the longest on record.
The baby name Rowan’s surname roots are clear. But ties to the natural world also boost the name’s popularity.
The rowan tree, also known as the mountain ash, is a small deciduous tree. It grows in Europe, North America, and Asia, in cool climates. It’s known for red berries, which are edible – though not necessarily straight off the tree.
Once again, the color red explains the name – though in this case, it’s Scandinavian rather than Irish. The Swedish name is rönn or rönnträd; in Norwegian, it’s rogn or rognebærtre. Both sound similar(ish) to rowan.
It was sometimes called “the tree of life” both because
ROAN and ROHAN
Similar names might be different spellings of Rowan.
Or they could have completely separate origins.
Roan might refer to a roan horse; except that, once again, it means red.
Rohan, on the other hand, is most likely a Sanskrit given name meaning “ascending” or a fictional kingdom from JR Tolkien’s fantasy world – though Rohan is known for its horsemen.
Other variations come down to spelling: Rowen, possibly influenced by Owen. A dozen boys born in 2021 were named Rowin – though that looks a little like it’s missing the final G. Rowyn is even more popular, especially for girls, with spellings like Rowanne seen, too.
In Dutch, it’s reduced to a single syllable: Roy. But that feels like an entirely separate name.
During the nineteenth century, Irish astronomer and mathematician Rowan Hamilton pioneered concepts in algebra.
English actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson rose to fame as the bumbling, mostly silent Mr. Bean. He’s had a long career, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing through today.
Credit almost certainly goes to Atkinson for American parents’ embrace of the name.
The baby name Rowan gained in use during the 1990s, just as Atkinson’s movie career took off. He had roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Never Say Never Again, and The Lion King. (He’s the voice of Zazu.) All were high profile parts during the decade, and Rowan rose from nearly unknown to the US Top 1000, debuting in 1999.
Rowan Williams recently served as Archbishop of Canterbury.
It appears to have more history as a first name in the UK, though it’s found in small numbers in the US from the early twentieth century onward.
In the UK, it was already in the Top 200 during the 1990s.
It remains more of a boy’s name in England, though in the US, the baby name Rowan is increasingly unisex.
THE WICKER MAN
So how did the baby name Rowan become unisex?
Some of the answer is easy – it’s a surname name, like Taylor and Madison, so that was always a possibility. Nature names, too, tend to trend unisex.
Plus, other names like the Welsh Rhonwen and English Rowena come to mind. The latter was popularized in the 19th century thanks to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. That means Rowan almost feels like an update to an older name.
But there’s a more recent explanation.
In 1973, British horror movie The Wicker Man was quietly released. It fizzled at first, but evolved into a cult classic, the kind of movie that newcomers discover year after year.
The plot? A police sergeant has been summoned to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison.
The police sergeant is a devout Christian, surprised to discover that the island inhabitants practice a pagan, Celtic devotion.
And the islanders? They deny that there ever was a girl named Rowan Morrison.
The sergeant comes to believe that Rowan is, in fact, alive and suspects the villagers plan to sacrifice her to ensure a good harvest. Except … (spoiler alert) … it’s not Rowan they plan to sacrifice.
Other characters in The Wicker Man answer to Willow, Alder, Oak, Myrtle, Daisy, and Rose.
In the following years, the baby name Rowan starts to rise in use for girls, too.
Fast forward to the 1990s.
In 1990, Anne Rice published The Witching Hour, a tale centered around a supernatural in her beloved New Orleans.
The decade was peak-Anne Rice. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt would star in Interview with the Vampire in 1994.
But The Witching Hour and sequels wasn’t about vampires. Instead, the Mayfair family were witches. And Rowan Mayfair was the most powerful of them all.
It’s a fitting choice of name. Legend and lore credits the tree with all sorts of mystical abilities.
The wood fends off witches and vampires, protects ships and cattle and houses. Their berries could help tell the future.
The Witching Hour became a bestseller. Sequels followed, and Rowan continued to rise in use for boys and girls alike.
In 2023, the story of the Mayfair witches inspired a series on AMC, titled Mayfair Witches. American actress Alexandra Daddario plays the main character.
BY the NUMBERS
As of 2021, the baby name Rowan ranks #106 for boys and #241 for girls in the US. That’s a new high for boys.
Besides the Mayfair Witches‘ Rowan, pop culture continues to give us more uses of the name.
Sara J. Maas’ Throne of Glass book series includes Rowan Whitethorn, a warrior prince in her sprawling fantasy series. The first book debuted in 2012, and the last in 2018.
Brooke Shields welcomed a daughter named Rowan Francis in 2003.
GAELIC CHARMER and NEW TRADITIONAL
The baby name Rowan is poised to succeed favorites like Ryan and Aidan. It’s a Gaelic charmer with history to spare, but a fresh, vibrant feeling, too.
If you’re after a nature name that feels at home in this moment but grounded in the past, Rowan is the best of all worlds.
What do you think of the baby name Rowan?
First published on February 2, 2010, this post was revised substantially and re-posted on July 16, 2014; March 22, 2018; and May 8, 2023.