Neil Armstrong in an Gemini G-2C training suit...He’s been to the moon and the top of the pop charts.

Thanks to Junepoppies and Vicki for suggesting Neil as our Baby Name of the Day.

I know a handful of Neils.  They range in age from 30-something to twice that, but none of them are newborns.

This tracks with Neil’s heyday.  He peaked in the 1960s and 70s, but generally had a good run, ranking in the US Top from 1928 through 1983.

Originally, Neil comes from Niall – a Gaelic name meaning champion or cloud or cute blonde singer from One Direction.  Niall Horan – the 1D member – is Irish, where that spelling is a Top 100 choice.  Sound-wise, he rhymes with Kyle and the Nile.

When the Vikings arrived in Ireland, they borrowed Niall.  Njall and Njal became established names in Norse languages.  The Vikings took Njal to Scotland with them, too, and eventually to Norman England.

But let’s go back to Ireland for a minute.  Niall of the Nine Hostages was an Irish king, the founder of a ruling family that held power for the better part of four centuries.  We’re pretty sure he was a real person, but details are elusive.  He probably came to power in the mid to late 300s, and he may have made war on Roman Britain.  He may also have kidnapped the future Saint Patrick.  I’m stumped by his epithet – he definitely had hostages, as did many an ancient and medieval king, but the number nine doesn’t seem tied to a specific story.

Other Neils include:

  • Neal Cassady, a Beat Generation poet immortalized by Jack Kerouac in On the Road Dean Moriarty is based on him.
  • Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon.  He’s Neil of the New Nine – the second group of astronauts selected by NASA, and one of only two civilians selected.  Armstrong was a test pilot and veteran of the US Navy.  He went to space with Gemini 8 and then Apollo 11.  It was during the second mission that he set foot on the moon, and uttered the immortal phrase “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
  • Neil Diamond is a legendary singer-songwriter, known for a long list of hits, from “Sweet Caroline” to “Heartlight” to “America.”
  • Music also gives us Neil Young and Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant.
  • The Young Ones was a 1980s hit for the BBC, the tale of four seriously mismatched undergrads sharing a house.  There’s a punk, an anarchist, an opportunistic grifter – and the hippie, Neil.
  • Another fictional Neil is Robert Sean Leonard’s character in Dead Poets Society.
  • It can be a surname, too – think of Motley Crue’s Vince Neil.
  • The imaginative writer Neil Gaiman is another notable bearer, as is playwright Neil Simon.
  • Actor Neil Patrick Harris has had a long television career.

There’s also Neel, a name derived from Hindi.  It means either blue, or possibly refers to a large number.  Neelam and Nilam are Sanskrit names meaning sapphire.

Neil feels like a twentieth century staple.  He’s something of a compromise name, somewhere between Cash and William.  Even after all these years, I still think Armstrong lends his first name a measure of daring, gutsy, world-changing cool.  (And a built-in nursery theme.)

At #623 in 2012, Neil is fading fast, losing ground to other single-syllable sensations, like Chase and Cole.  But if you’re after an established name that your son won’t share with others, there’s something to said for the solid Neil.

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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. My youngest child is Neil. He will be 3 in June. There is another Neil in his daycare who is nine months younger. I also know a Neil in the second grade of the school where I teach and a kindergartner as well. These two Neils are of Indian ethnicity. My Neil is white and Filipino. The remaining Neil is white. Perhaps Neil is making a comeback.

  2. Thanks for profiling this! It’s my 80s born brother’s name and rarely have we found anyone with it in the same generation. But at the same time it’s a simple, recognisable name. I think it’s overdue a revival.

  3. This would have been my name if I’d been a boy, although where my parents got it from I’m not sure; they have a friend named Neil, but wouldn’t have thought the relationship close enough for me to name me after him. I like the name Neil, but I have trouble enough imagining myself as a man, let alone one named Neil.

    I was surprised to see this name is still in the #300s here and fairly stable – I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing of a child named Neil.

  4. In the highly unlikely case that we have another child, Neil is on my short list. I just really like the name… but my grandma was called Nellie and I have ancestors named Cornelius. Plus my husband adores Neil deGrasse Tyson, Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson.

    (I considered Neil as a middle name for my son, but then his initials would have been P.N.S.)

  5. I love the name Neil. For some reason it’s one of those names that I grew up with yet it doesn’t sound dated. Also, all of the Neil’s that I know are Indian and spell it Neil. So while I do think of Neil Armstrong, my first thought is that it’s a great cross cultural name. He might be fading but I’d still put Neil in that elusive ‘stands-out-but-fits-in’ category.

    1. I’ve also known an Indian-American Neel, so yes – I think you’re definitely on to something with the cross-cultural idea.

  6. My whole life, this name seemed hopelessly dated; my only personal reference was one particularly bland elementary school classmate of mine. Then Neal Caffrey, the (devastatingly hot) con-man-turned-FBI-consultant on USA’s “White Collar,” debuted and single-handedly made Neal appealing again. I’m sure I can’t be the only person who feels this way.

    1. Amen Claire. Neil was the father of a childhood friend so it was very much a “dad” name to me growing up. Then White Collar happened and holy smokes does Neal sound like a wearable option! I can hardly believe that man goes by the nondescript, friendly “Matt” in real life!

    2. I’ve never seen White Collar … clearly, I need to watch! Because a great television character can totally make a name wearable again.

  7. I really like the name Neil and I love all the historical and fictional references! For my personal use though, I am attracted to longer names. I have always thought Neil would be a great nickname for Cornelius.

    1. That’s funny, Mandy, because in much older generations of my (Dutch) family there are Corneliuses who went by Neil! While I like Neil a lot, I like Niall more. I prefer the /eye/ sound to the /ee/.