Classic Boys’ Names: The wonderful world of Williams

Classic Boys’ Names: The wonderful world of Williams

By Linda Rosenkrantz

When you think of classic boys’ names, chances are that the first three that pop to mind are John, James and William. Of the three, William is, much like female counterparts Elizabeth, Mary and Margaret, probably the richest in its multiplicity of variations, nicknames, girl versions, etc. Here’s a rundown of the main man and his manifestations.

WilliamFor four hundred years, William was second only to John as the most widely used name in the English-speaking world, and even now is the fifth most prevalent boys’ name in the US, given to almost 17,000 baby boys last year. With Germanic roots, William was introduced to England by William the Conqueror, and has long been a royal name in that country; it has belonged to no fewer than four US presidents and countless notables from Shakespeare to the present popular high-profile prince. 


BillBill was the good guy, everyman short form for decades and decades, as in the old radio soap Just Plain Bill, the song ‘Bill’ from Showboat and countless other musical tributes. A Top 100 name on its own from the twenties to the forties, it even became presidential via Mr. Clinton. But younger generation Williams are more likely to be called Will..or William.

BillyThough it may feel to us like an all-American name, the friendly, boyish Billy is currently higher (#100) in Ireland and 110 in England and Wales, while only 690 in the US. Among notables who have gone by this nickname: Billy the Kid, Billy Graham, Billy Crystal, Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Ray Cyrus, Billy Dee Williams, and musicians Billy Joel,, Billy (Green Day) Armstrong, and Billy (Good Charlotte) Martin. Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton used it for their son.

LiamAs the second most popular name in the US, this Irish shortened form of William has managed to surpass its progenitor. A celebrity fave, it’s been chosen by Tori Spelling, Calista Flockhart, Rod Stewart, Kevin Costner and Craig Ferguson, among others. Could conceivably reach #1 next year!

Will—One of the oldest of William’s many short forms, going back to Shakespeare and beyond, Will has replaced Bill among contemporary parents—though not always and only for William. Will Smith was born Willard, Will Ferrell, John. Will has always been a standalone name on the pop list, as high as Number 25 in the 1880s.

WillieOnce the eleventh most common baby boy name in America, and in the Top 50 all the way through till 1953, Willie is probably the least desirable William nickname right now, partly due to its slang connotations. There are some great Willies past though, from Willie Mays to Willie Nelson.

Wills—rarely heard in the US, this version gained international prominence when it was what Princess Diana chose to call the young Prince William. It could well start being used more here, as boy s-ending names continue to trend.


FitzwilliamOne of the most romantic choices, by virtue of being the first name of the dashing Mr. Darcy in _Pride and Prejudice—_it was his mother’s maiden name. Fitz means ‘son of’ so this would work well for a child of a William.

Guglielmo—The Italian version, not easily imported. Most famous bearer is Marconi, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and inventor, known for his pioneering work on radio transmission.

GuillaumePronounced gee-OHM, a French-accented charmer here, common as Bill in Brittany.

GuillermoThis Spanish version can be heard every night on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

GwilymAn appealing Welsh classic, pronounced as willem with a g.

VilmosThe Hungarian form of William, now #77 in its native habitat, has never been used much outside the Hungarian community.

WilhelmThe stiff and sober Germanic form is an ancient royal name, but fell completely out of favor in the US after World War I and Kaiser Wilhelm. Some other associations: the composer Wilhem Richard Wagner, one of the Brothers Grimm, psychiatrist Reich—and as Leonard DiCaprio’s middle name.

Willem—This engaging Dutch version has two notable bearers—artist de Kooning and actor Dafoe (born William, but nicknamed Willem in high school).

WimThis German abbreviation of Wilhelm’s pronunciation of vim gives it a lot of vim and’s associated here with German director Wim Wenders (born Ernst Wilhelm).


WilburEvokes childhood memories via the pig in Charlotte’s Web; a Wright brothers-era name actually used for a baby on Nip/Tuck.

WilfredAn Anglo-Saxon name with a noble heritage, namely via Sir Walter Scott’s handsome and courageous hero, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, whose sword has been somewhat tarnished. Spelled Wilfrid, it’s the name of two saints. A possible road to Freddie.

Wilkie—A Scottish offshoot of William heard most often as a surname. Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica P. used it as the middle name of their son James; its most noted first-name bearer is author Wilkie (The Woman in White) Collins.

WillardThe real name of Will Smith and Mitt Romney, Willard conjures up images of weatherman Scott and a rat-infested movie of the same name. Willard was once, in 1915, the 58th most popular boys’ name in the land. Harrison Ford has a grown son named Willard.

WillisKind of a midcentury sitcom-character name, more commonly seen as a surname

WilloughbyA lively, distant relation (it means “willow town”), Willoughby is heard as a first name in the Victorian novel The Egotist, and as a surname in Sense and Sensiibility.

WilsonA presidential patronymic, Wilson has been steadily on the pop list since records were published, in the Top 200 a century ago. Has a slight jazzy feel via R&B’s Wilson Pickett.


BillieAn evergreen tomboyish nickname name, Billie reached the top 100 in 1928. Some cool namesakes: Billie Holiday (born Eleanora), tennis great Billie Jean King and actress Billie Piper (born Lianne); has been picked by several celebs.

WilhelminaThis once wooden-clogged German feminine version has been considerably unclunked by the modeling agency, the sly Vanessa Williams character on Ugly Betty, and by being chosen by the Taylor Hansons for their baby daughter. Has several energizing nicknames as well.

WillaOriginally a short form of Wilhelmina, the pretty, strong but graceful Willa has become more and more stylish, used by several celebs and TV scripters. Only Number 691 on the Social Security list, Willa is the 17th most popular girl on Nameberry.

WilmaThis Flintstone-related cousin of Willa hasn’t fared quite so well: a Top 100 name for several decades, Wilma has been off the list since the early 70s.

TO RAP IT UP—The Black Eyed Peas rapper shows there’s always room for a new twist.

About the Author

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz is the co-founder of Nameberry, and co-author with Pamela Redmond of the ten baby naming books acknowledged to have revolutionized American baby naming. You can follow her personally at InstagramTwitter and Facebook. She is also the author of the highly acclaimed New York Review Books Classics novel Talk and a number of other books.