Welcome Back, William

January 2, 2012 § 6 Comments

This year, William eclipsed Kate by a long shot in the realm of baby names.

Though it’s not like you went very far.

Canada Vital Statistics released the top names for 2011 last week, with Olivia retaining top spot for the girls – and Maya, Mia, and Mya perhaps surprisingly splitting second place. Other popular choices like Emma, Sophia, and Chloe/Khloe remained in the Top 10, with little change on the boys’ side, as well. Selections like Jacob (#2) and Ethan (the top boys name in Ontario, our most populous province) sit in the top 10 for boys. The most progressive province or territory when it comes to names? Easily the youngest northern territory, Nunavut, where Aqpakuluk (obviously an Inuit name, I have no clue what it means) and Phoenix are both near the top of the girls’ list.

News outlets in Australia have been noting an upswing in baby Williams (but not Kates – the name may have grown all it was going to, and the Duchess is known by Catherine now, anyway), and the same trend proved true here in Canada when the list was released. Kate didn’t make the list, but Catherine/Katherine, Katie, and Cate each did. William jumped from eighth place on the CVS list in 2010 to grab the top spot on the heels of the royal wedding and the couple’s highly publicized tour of Canada in July, while nickname-name Liam was counted separately and sits at #4 nationwide. Considering a fair number of the boys named William will go by Liam throughout their life, the name is likely to be as prominent and commonplace among boys as John was for our parents’ generation, Mike and Dave are for our own, and Jack has been for the past decade of babies!

William charted all over the English speaking world this year – in the celeb realm alone we saw Australian Olympic Champion field hockey star Mark Knowles welcome Flynn William November 26th, former US Bachelor contestant Jenni Croft welcome Gio William September 6th, German actress Susan Sideropoulos welcome Liam Chaim August 20th, Extreme Makeover: Weight-Loss Edition host Chris Powell welcomed son William Cash on June 13th, Otis Liam Francis born to Australian journalist Jacinta Tynan May 15th, William Neko Bell born to the original American Idol runner-up, Justin Guarini, on April 26th, William Nicholas (called Will), born to Swedish LPGA star Annika Sorenstam March 21st, William Adam born to Australian news anchor Kellie Connolly February 21st, and Liam James, born to Scottish-born TV host Craig Ferguson and wife Megan on January 31st.

What’s most interesting is that William is a name that seems to never go out of style (though the same could loosely be said of the name Catherine/Katherine, which still thrives for all it’s short forms and variable options). Even old fashioned, traditional John feels dated and finds itself on less and less newborn babies as a given first name, but William is nearly as popular now (on a global scale) as it was in the days of William the Conqueror in 11th Century England. Which may of course be a slight exaggeration – for a long time after William the Conqueror’s reign, 3 of 4 boys born in Britain were named William. But due to a wider range of options, the most popular names of today only account for about five per cent of all babies born of a particular sex, whereas even a century ago the names at the top of the list accounted for about a quarter of babies born. This popular history has also led Williams to become the third most popular surname in the United States, behind Smith and Johnson. Williamson is also common as a surname, while Wilson and Wilkins (as in “William’s kin”), Willis, Wilkes, and Wilmot also claim derivation from William.

The heir to the British throne is a popular and well-styled inspiration for his name, and has been ever since it was bestowed upon him by one of the world’s most storied couples (of which one half was the among the world’s most beloved women). William comes originally from the Old German Willehelm/Wilhelm, from willeo (will, determination) + helm (protection/helmet), or “resolute protector.” A perfect name for a king. It’s not surprisingly the most popular name to arrive on English shores following the Norman conquest, when William (Willaume, which derived Guillaume) the Conqueror defeated King Harald at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. (Robert, Richard, Roger, Henry, and Hugh came too.)

When Prince William takes the throne, he will be the fifth king with his name. Plenty of kings across Europe have been named some variation on the name, from countless Wilhelms of Germany to the current Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. (Actor Willem Dafoe also popularizes the Dutch form, though it’s not popular in North America.)

Some believe that Saint William of Gellone can be credited with this name’s popularity among the royal set – he is the earliest recorded bearer of the name, also known in texts as William of Orange, Guilhem, Guillaume Fierabrace, or William Short-Nose. He was the second Count of Toulouse in the late 8th-early 9th Century, a cousin of Charlemagne (William’s mother Aldana was a daughter of Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel.) William of Gellone was said to have been gifted a piece of the True Cross by his cousin Charlemagne, which he in turn gifted to the Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert monastery he had built in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of southern France (it stands today). He defended his territory and religion in a holy war against Abd-al Rahman I in 793, and defended alongside King Louis of Acquitane to take Barcelona against the Moors of Western North Africa in 801. It’s believed that William of Gellone’s position and bravery in defense of his king and country, paired with the name’s meaning, made it popular among the monarchies of Europe. The name is so widespread that it has numerous understood variations across Europe apart from it’s royal ties – Guglielmo in Italy, Guillermo in Spain, Vilhjálmr in Old Norse, Vilyam in Turkish, Vilmos in Hungarian, among countless others.

But a few other famous and important Williams add fire to this name, including English playwright William Shakespeare, and Scottish warrior William Wallace. William Shakespeare, of course, changed the English language and ushered in an era of romanticism in England, on the cusp of great expansion under Queen Elizabeth I. His work remains among the most valued in the English language and is taught in schools all over the world. William Wallace was a 13th Century Scottish knight who became a leader of the War of Independence (his medieval Gaelic name was Uilliam Uallace), named Guardian of Scotland before he was defeated, then tortured and killed on the order of King Edward I for high treason and crimes against English civilians. A Scottish folk hero, he was immortalized for the world, including many whose Scottish heritage made them feel connected to the hero, in the 1995 film Braveheart.

In the Netherlands, Wim is a pet form of Willem, as seen on filmmaker Wim Wenders. Countless nicknames are available for this name in the English world, too – from Will to Bill to Billy and Willie. But Liam is far and away the leader of the pack today. The nickname charts higher or close behind the long form almost everywhere in the English speaking world. In England, naturally, the original is still far more common. Well known nickname wearer Will Smith is actually Willard, meaning “strong determination” – which derives from Old German Willeheard, from willeo + heard (strong).

Among the multitude of famous Williams are actors William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Bills Pullman and Paxton, 18th Century English poet William Blake, 20th Century American author William Faulkner, country musician Willie Nelson, comedian Bill Cosby, three presidents – William Howard Taft, William McKinley, and Bill Clinton, and the Prime Minister of Canada during World War II, William Lyon Mackenzie King (who, in today’s world, would have one of the trendiest names imaginable). Musician William Adams is better known as will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.

Female forms Willa, Wilma, and Wilhelmina are much less used but all relatively well-known. Dutch-born model Wilhelmina Cooper appeared on the cover of Vogue 27 times and was the most sought after model of the 1950s and early ’60s. She used her experience to found the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency in 1967, and she discovered the model Gia Carangi, who died of AIDS in 1986. In the 1997 HBO film starring Angelina Jolie, Cooper was portrayed by Faye Dunaway. Wilma Flintstone was Fred’s long-suffering wife in the iconic 1960s cartoon. Willow, too, has been used as a feminine variation on the name, as in the case of Will Smith’s daughter Willow Camille Reign, 11.

This name has always been manly, but nickname Billie has been an underground 20th Century favourite suddenly rising fast for girls. Eric Dane and Rebecca Gayheart welcomed daughter Billie Beatrice in 2010, just weeks after Australian TV presenter Jules Lund welcomed daughter Billie Elizabeth. On Christmas Eve 2010, Canadian Champion ice dancers Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon welcomed a daughter named Billie-Rose. Belgian actress Anke Frederick welcomed daughter Billie Elle in April this year, a month after Belgian TV presenter Bram Deputte welcomed a daughter, also named Billie. Days of Our Lives star Dominic Zamprogna welcomed a daughter named Anbilliene in October 2010, who seems destined to be Billie after the following quote from the Canadian actor in Soap Opera Digest last year: “We were only about three weeks married, and we were just talking about having kids. We weren’t even pregnant yet but we touched on baby names and I always liked Billie because of Billie Holiday, and I always liked Billie as a girl’s name. And, both of our grandmother’s have the first name of Anne, so we decided to make it Billie, bookended by An at the beginning and ne at the end, so it’s Anbilliene.  I think it’s cool and different.”

I admit it surprised me when I saw that William was top of the charts this year, even over trendy Liam which has been exceptionally popular in Canada, charting higher here than in Scotland where the short form first thrived in the medieval era. And I suspect that many of the Williams born this year are intending to use a nickname like Liam, or even be known commonly by their middle name – as in the case of Chris Powell’s son William Cash. William can feel a bit stuffy and royal, though both it and Henry are as accessible as ever thanks to Diana’s two sons. But it’s a boy’s name that provides the kind of options and creativity that people appreciate so much in names for girls, which may also help explain why it’s so trendy today.

UPDATED: And on the strength of William comes a little Willa – Keri Russell and husband Shane Deary welcomed Willa Lou in New York December 27th. Sister to River Russell, 4, it’s a curious sibset but works anyway. However I’m stuck on the combination of first and middle names – maybe Louise is a family name. It’s very L heavy. Philip Seymour Hoffman has a daughter named Willa (3), but celebs Willa Ford and Holland (The OC) have given a sometimes negative association to it.


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§ 6 Responses to Welcome Back, William

  • William! One of the great naming success stories of history – still going strong after almost a thousand years.

    One of its strong features must be its versatility – William sounds so dignified, yet what could be as unpretentious as Bill? As simple as Will? As cute as Billy?

    (I’m amazed at how many places are getting the 2011 data out before 2011 is even over – including my own place of residence! They can’t be blogged until everyone has completed their sums, I’m getting very impatient).

    • The Name Station says:

      I don’t know of any publication banns on lists in this country. Once it’s in the papers, it’s fair game to be discussed, though the official lists for each of the provinces, save for Ontario, has yet to be released (most of them release in the spring, once all the babies have been born and names counted, but Ontario released their list earlier this month, the same day the CVS press release went out, as well.) But neither government has published the complete list yet.

      I love William, I think it’s dignified and traditional but modern and cool. Like the rest of Canada, I’m definitely a huge fan on Liam as a nickname – the name was once at the top of my list for boys for style, before it got quite so popular (and until I met a Liam I didn’t like).

  • William is one of the standard classics I can’t help but love. I also have a penchant for the French version- Guillaume.

    As for Liam, I seem to see it more often as he stands rather than as a short form of William – where Will seems to be the most dominant short form amongst those I know with the name.

    • The Name Station says:

      Will is the dominant short form for guys named William who are my age (at least here), but I swear I ONLY know little Liams under the age of 10.

    • The Name Station says:

      I take that back, actually. Counted in my head today – I know at least three Liams pushing 30, and only one Will. I know there are many more Wills out there, but I’m really starting to think that Liams popularity in Canada has probably been building for a while…

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