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.
William—For 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.
Bill—Bill 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.
Billy—Though 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.
Liam—As 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.
Willie—Once 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.
Fitzwilliam—One 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.
Gwilym—An appealing Welsh classic, pronounced as willem with a g.
Wilhelm—The 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.
SURNAMES, VARIANTS AND RELATIVES
Wilfred—An 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.
Willard—The 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.
Willis –Kind of a midcentury sitcom-character name, more commonly seen as a surname
Billie—An 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.
Wilhelmina—This 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.
Willa—Originally 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.
TO RAP IT UP
will.i.am—The Black Eyed Peas rapper shows there’s always room for a new twist.
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on September 18th, 2014 at 6:24 am
The Italian variation is Guglielmo, with and L, not an R as you wrote. Okay, maybe there’s even a form with R, but the most used one is the Guglielmo. Which is not very popular because of the heavy Gs, but still easily recognizable.
Interesting list! Thanks for that!
on September 18th, 2014 at 8:16 am
One more to add to the list: Wilmer (ala Valderrama).
I’m not fond of W names in general but do like William/Will/Wills. I also like Liam and Billie. I’ve noticed that Willie is starting to come back into use.
And Fitzwilliam…swoon! I think this would be great in the middle spot for a son or grandson of a William.
on September 18th, 2014 at 8:39 am
W names are great and I am very happy to read this because William is one of those versatile classic names like Elizabeth or Catherine or Virginia with such incredible nicknames.
Wilkie is my favorite male William name. It reminds me of Archie for Archibald, cheery, quaint, upbeat.
And Wilhelmina I adore too. The strong and starchy Wilhelmina, cute Billie, soft-sounding Helma, increasingly popular Willa, the dated but fun Wilma, plus all the Min, Minnie, Mina, Minna options….
on September 18th, 2014 at 9:48 am
I know a Willoughby who goes by Wilby (it’s a family name and he is the third to carry it).
on September 18th, 2014 at 10:12 am
William is one of my favourite names, and had I another son, he would have been a Will. William is a family name going back not only to my ancestor William Brewster but also to my great-grandfather Georg Willem Pedersen who was a resistance fighter against the Germans in Norway and whose fate, after he was captured, remains unknown to this day.
Love the Welsh form Gwilym. Interestingly, I have heard Guy as a nn for Guillaume. And as a previous poster said, Guglielmo is the Italian version. Memo used to be a common nn.
on September 18th, 2014 at 10:40 am
Thanks–Guglielmo typo has been fixed.
on September 18th, 2014 at 10:49 am
I’m actually not a fan of William I don’t like it. My favourite classic name for girls is Margaret.
on September 18th, 2014 at 12:41 pm
I love the name William it was the name of my grandfather, uncle, and cousin. I also had a great grandmother named Wilhelmina. Another form of William is Wiley which is the Scottish diminutive of William. I plan on using Wiley in honor of my grandfather one day.
on September 18th, 2014 at 7:51 pm
Love William! It’s my dad and brother’s name. I’m not sure (because it’s already been used on them plus another uncle and cousin on my other side) I’d actually use William (if so, Liam is my favorite, minus the popularity), but Fitzwilliam is a guilty pleasure option (I’d probably feel too preposterous putting it on an actual human’s birth certificate).
I adore ADORE Wilhelmina, particularly without the heavy H pronunciation (Willa-meena vs wil-HELL-meena)… I doubt I’d have the moxie to use it though. AWould use Willa as a nn for sure.
Oof, you got Wilhelmina on my brain for the rest of the day!
» Classic Boys’ Names: The wonderful world of Williams Baby Name Suggestion Said
on September 21st, 2014 at 1:40 am
[…] The classic name William has given rise to dozens of nicknames, offshoots and foreign and feminine variations, from Liam to Gwilym to Wilhelmina. Nameberry – Baby Name Blog […]
on January 8th, 2015 at 1:26 pm
Love William. Lots of people in my family named William. Two Grandfathers, two uncles, their sons. And I like it as it is – William although all of the Williams in my family were called Bill.
While I like the sound of Fitzwilliam, Fitzhugh, Fitzgerald… there is also this –
Means “son of” (hence all the English surnames like Fitzpatrick, Fitzhenry) but can also refer to an illegitimate child, a bastard, someone born out of wedlock etc.
Henry VIII’s son Henry Fitzroy (illegitimate son of the king – Roy) couldn’t inherit as he was illegitimate. Hence Elizabeth I preceded by Edward VI and Bloody Mary
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