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.