Boy Baby Names: Let’s talk about Liam
By Linda Rosenkrantz
The biggest news of the 2017 SSA popularity list release was that we have a brand new boy at the top. It’s Liam, who heralds a new era in several ways. It’s the first name with such distinctive non-biblical, non Anglo-Saxon roots. And it’s the first to be a shortened form of another name.
So who is Liam?
And why has he replaced the traditional William nickname names of Will and Willie, Bill and Billy (the latter actually making something of a comeback), in the hearts and minds of more than 18,000 American parents last year? It’s precisely because Liam does sound fresher and more current than the others, more buoyant and hearty, with its appealingly jaunty Irish accent, than those that ruled before. And though it’s a nickname Liam stands more solidly on its own, complete in itself.
What is his backstory?
Liam is the short form of Uilliam, the Irish cognate of William, which was formed by the merger of two Old German elements: willa, meaning will or resolution, and helma, or helmet. So the accepted meaning of William that emerged is “resolute protector.” When the Frankish Empire was divided, it developed into the French Guillaume. The Normans brought the name to England after the Conquest of 1066 and soon William became only second to John as the favorite male name in English-speaking countries.
Liam is only the seventh male name to hold the top position in the US, following John, who reigned from long before official records were kept, until 1923; Robert, who ruled for the next 15 years, (popping back once in 1953); then James from 1940 to 1952, Michael for an incredible 44 years, Jacob from 1999 to 2012, and finally Noah for a brief four- year term.
Until the end of the 18th century, Liam didn’t venture far outside Ireland—that was until the great exodus of Irish people escaping the great famine, bringing their names with them. It was in the early 1930s that Liam began to be heard as an independent name in England and Wales, peaking in popularity in 1996, as the #10 boy name in the UK.
In the US, Liam entered the lower rungs of the Top 1000 in 1967, but didn’t reach the Top 50 until 2009, infiltrating the Top 10 in 2012, and then gaining second place by 2013.
Post-Liam celebs that have drawn more attention to the name include Liam Gallagher, lead singer of Oasis, Australian actor and Miley Cyrus fiancé Liam Hemsworth and current pop idol Liam Payne of the boy band One Direction.
Celebrities have been in the forefront of Liam baby namers: Faye Dunaway back in 1980, Rod Stewart in 1994, Kevin Costner in 1996, Calista Flockhart and Harrison Ford in 2001, Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott in 2007, Craig Ferguson in 2011, and Lauren Conrad just last year.
Liam may also have benefited from the current love for L boy names. Last year Logan entered the Top 10 for the first time, the Leo family of names remains strong, and other fast risers starting with L include Lincoln and Legend, with the top 50 also including Lucas, Luke and Levi. Not to mention all the attention focused on new royal baby Louis. And Liam is also structurally a logical successor to Noah, both having beginning and end consonants enclosing two vowels, giving both names a particularly smooth flow and a softness appealing to today’s parents.
And let’s not forget the Gaelic factor. Americans of every ethnicity have long loved Irish names, tracing a green thread from Patrick though Brian, Ryan,Kevin, Sean, Aidan, Riley, Declan, Rory and many more
So, with all it has going for it, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when Liam took the crown!
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on May 30th, 2018 at 4:13 pm
I have never met a William whose nickname was Liam. Only full-name Liams.
on May 30th, 2018 at 8:09 pm
I’ve never seen Williams called Liam, I don’t think that’s something that’s very common so even though it’s the first nickname to be number 1, it’s forgettable. .
Also while it may not be anglo-Saxon, it’s still from the same region, so I’m pretty sure a lot of people wouldn’t consider Liam something out of the norm or a big change from the types of names we normally see.
While it’s interesting to have a new number 1, I don’t see this as noteworthy.
on May 31st, 2018 at 12:35 pm
This a great history of the name Liam! I do like the name though the popularity means I’ll never use it.
The article says that “Liam” was FIRST used as a nickname for “William,” not that every “Liam” has the full name of “William.” That’s one of the noteworthy things about the name—it’s the first US boys’ number one to have begun life as a nickname.
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