English: William II of England Česky: Vilém Rufus

This post was originally published on January 11, 2009.  It was substantially revised and reposted on July 28, 2014.

He’s an ancient appellation with plenty of indie cred.

Our Baby Name of the Day is the red-headed Rufus.

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright might not be a household name, but he’s gained a cult following since he launched his career in the 1990s. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve probably heard his music – he’s contributed tracks to movies from Shrek to Brokeback Mountain.

Rufus suits an indie darling perfectly. There’s something offbeat about this choice and, indeed, he’s been worn by some unusual fictional characters, including:

  • Groucho Marx answered to Rufus T. Firefly in 1933’s Duck Soup.
  • George Carlin played a time-traveling Rufus in 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
  • Rufus, the thirteenth apostle, played by Chris Rock in the 1999 movie Dogma.
  • In Kill Bill, Vol. 2, Samuel L. Jackson appears as Rufus, the wedding chapel organist.
  • Television’s Gossip Girl included not-quite-rock-star dad Rufus Humphrey.

There’s also an animated cat in Disney’s The Rescuers, a dog in the Chalet School series of books, and a naked mole rat who takes part in Kim Possible’s adventures on the Disney Channel.

Yup, quirky is Rufus’ calling card.

The name first appears in Ancient Rome, where it probably started out as a name for a red-headed fellow.  In Latin, rufus referred to the color red, especially red hair.  It is ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root reudh, the origin of our words red and ruddy.

Plenty of Rufuses appear in the historical record from 100 BC to 400 AD, including a physician remembered for his writings on anatomy, poets, politicians, military generals and at least nine saints. One saintly Rufus is mentioned in the New Testament.

The name fell out of favor in the early Middle Ages. There is the eleventh century King William II of England, commonly known as William Rufus. That’s him in the picture above.  But his name referred to either his red hair or perhaps his flushed red face – legend has it that the king had quite a temper.

Post-Protestant Reformation, Rufus was revived by parents searching for novel Biblical baby names, and by the late nineteenth century, he was well established.

Rufus peaked at #88 in 1880, keeping company with choices like Horace and Homer, Julius and Francis.

It didn’t last. Rufus fell steadily, and last charted in the US Top 1000 in 1988.  Just 44 boys were named Rufus in 2013, and that seems to be the pattern – between two and four dozen newborns every year for the past two decades or so.

With names like Atticus and Silas climbing up the charts, Rufus seems like a logical choice.  Except it hasn’t happened – yet.

But while Rufus may be rare, he’s not unknown. Singer James Taylor chose the name for one of his twins in 2001. (His brother is called Henry.)  There’s also English actor Rufus Sewell, who played the bad guy in A Knight’s Tale and has a role in upcoming summer flick Hercules.

Rufus is cool – undeniably ancient and comfortably 21st century at the same time. He takes current trends a little bit farther than the relatively safe Marcus, but isn’t quite as daring as Ignatius. It’s the perfect name for a creative family with a daring streak to bestow upon their son.

What do you think of Rufus?  Would he wear well in 2014?

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. Amazing name – unusual and a lovely sense of history to it. Adorable for small boy but also quite sexy – upper class, quirky, educated – for an grown man. A fair number of African Americans are named Rufus so no need to worry about a child who may not have red hair… he wouldn’t be the only one. Rufus Sewell is super-sexy, Rufus Wainwright is super-talented. What’s not to love? Will definitely give this name to one of my future sons.

  2. What do you think about Rufus on a child that isn’t a red-head? We’re Black and while I love this name part of me thinks it’d be super weird to name a baby something that means a trait my kid couldn’t really have. I feel similarly weird about names that mean “fair” and “white” even when I like the names.

    1. I think it works just fine. It’s been on my personal shortlist, and there’s zero chance of any kiddo of mine having red hair. The sticking point with Rufus isn’t that people expect him to be red-headed, as much as they expect his parents to be wearing skinny jeans and ironic tee shirts. It’s a cool name, and that might carry a certain amount of pressure in its own way – but this is the age of cool, distinctive names, and being named Rufus is NOTHING compared to being named Legend, Messiah, or Saint!