The Many Names of David Bowie
During his long career, rock icon David Bowie was the master of reinvention, constantly changing image and donning guises, until it has become a cliche to describe him as chameleon-like.
More unusually, the masks that Bowie wore and the roles he assumed were often given a name, becoming characters in their own right. In tribute to David Bowie, here are some of the names he wore or were connected with him.
Before he was David Bowie, he was plain David Jones. Mr. and Mrs. Jones chose one of the most popular names of the 1940s for their son — a clear indication that you do not need an unusual name to lead an extraordinary life.
David is derived from the Hebrew Dawid, meaning “to love,” and usually translated as “beloved” or “my darling.” The name came into common use because of the biblical character, a handsome young warrior and talented musician who eventually became king of Israel.
A timeless classic since the Middle Ages, David is popular internationally, and in the English-speaking world is most popular in the US, where it is Number 30 and stable. It’s never gone out of style, and could unobtrusively honor David Bowie.
When David Jones was a struggling pop singer, his stage name Davie Jones was easily confused with Davy Jones from The Monkees. So he changed his name to David Bowie, the surname after American pioneer Jim Bowie, who he saw in the historical film The Alamo.
He chose the name of a famous American in tribute to the American music which first inspired him, and reportedly because he wanted a “cutting” name like Mick Jagger — the fighting knife called the bowie (pronounced BOO-ee) was created for Jim Bowie.
Bowie is a Scottish surname derived from the Gaelic nickname Buidhe, meaning “yellow,” to denote someone blond or fair-haired. It was first used as a personal name in Scotland, but in the US was increasingly given to honor Jim Bowie.
The name Bowie rose in popularity following the star's death in 2016. In 2021, Bowie was ranked at Number 950 for boys in the US. While it fits the trend of sharp-edged names like Arrow and Blade, it's first and foremost considered a musical baby name.
Ziggy Stardust is probably Bowie‘s most famous alter ego, inspired by pioneering English rocker Vince Taylor. Taylor impressed Bowie with his magnificent repertoire of dottiness, which included the belief that he was the son of God and a diet composed solely of eggs.
The name Ziggy came from a London tailor’s shop that Bowie passed on a train, while Stardust was after the American novelty act The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Thus, Ziggy Stardust was a mixture of fashion, madness, outsider art, and rock and roll excess.
Ziggy is a nickname for Germanic names such as Sigmund, but in practice used for a variety of names starting with Z. In 2021 there were 138 boys and 29 girls named Ziggy in the US: it’s more popular in the UK, where it is Number 336 for boys.
Before he became David Bowie, he seriously considered Tom Jones as his stage name. Instead, Major Tom the doomed astronaut became the hero of David Bowie‘s 1969 Space Oddity. The song didn’t get much airplay until after the safe return of the Apollo 11 mission, but became Bowie‘s breakout hit, and is regarded as one of the greatest rock songs of the twentieth century.
David Bowie refers to Major Tom in other songs (notably ‘Ashes to Ashes’), and in the music video for "Blackstar", we get a possible hint of his final fate. Such a seminal figure is Tom that he is mentioned in several songs by other artists as well.
Tom, a short form of Thomas, is currently popular in France and elsewhere in Europe, and fairly well used in the UK. Despite the charm of American classic Tom Sawyer, the name is not common in the US where there were 64 boys named Tom in 2021.
The Spiders from Mars were David Bowie‘s backing band in the early 1970s, especially known from the album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. They were named after an alleged 1954 UFO sighting at an Italian football game, blamed on migrating spiders.
Bowie was very interested in UFOs and believed he had witnessed some himself. A keen sci-fi fan, the planet Mars was another fascination of his, featuring enigmatically in the song ‘Life on Mars?’
The planet Mars is named after the Roman god of war and agriculture. Although the origin of the name is unknown, it is the basis for the word martial, meaning “war-like,” and the names Marcus and Martin.
Mars is rising in popularity as an English name — not always a reference to the god or planet as Mars is also a surname that’s a variant of Marsh. It’s more common in Scandinavia and Central Europe, a contraction of Marius. In 2021 there were 143 boys and 30 girls named Mars; celebrities who’ve used it include Erykah Badu and Blake Anderson.
Aladdin Sane was David Bowie‘s 1973 album. Although people often forget the name of this Bowie persona (a pun on A Lad Insane), his image is one of the most memorable: a face crossed by a lightning bolt to represent a divided self. A continuation of Ziggy Stardust, it was partly inspired by David Bowie‘s brother Terry, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Aladdin features in One Thousand and One Nights as a boy who becomes trapped in a cave by a wicked magician but escapes with the help of a genie. A pantomime staple, it has also been made into a popular Disney film.
The name Aladdin is an Anglicised form of the Arabic name Ala Al-Din, meaning “excellent in faith”. Aladdin has been rarely used as an English name, and probably reminds people too strongly of the magical lamp.
The Thin White Duke was the persona attached to Bowie‘s 1976 album Station to Station. Outwardly an elegant aristocrat with cabaret style, the Duke had a sinister side that included an undercurrent of Fascism. David Bowie described him as “a nasty character”.
Duke is an English noble title derived from the Latin dux, meaning “leader.” As a surname, it was given to those employed in a duke’s household or could be derived from the Irish name Marmaduke. Although it has been given as a personal name for centuries, it has more often been used as a nickname, such as jazz legend Duke Ellington.
On and off the US Top 1000 since the 19th century, it had a break of more than 40 years before returning in 2013. It’s currently #651 in the US.
The Thin White Duke was partly influenced by the look of Bowie‘s character Thomas Newton in the 1976 sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. David Bowie plays a lonely alien who becomes trapped on earth, and the film has gone on to become highly influential. Bowie himself has used the film’s imagery on the album Low, and in the video for "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)".
Newton is an English surname, taken from a common place name meaning “new settlement.” Its most famous namesake is the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton, who made so many contributions to physics and optics, but is best known for discovering the laws of gravity — by his own account, by watching an apple fall from a tree. He fulfilled all the requirements of a popular genius by not only being staggeringly brainy, but also mysteriously eccentric and pleasingly modest.
There must have been many Newtons named after Sir Isaac, but the name left the US Top 1000 in 1957; in 2021 there were just 26 boys named Newton in the US and seven in the UK.
Jareth was the flamboyant Goblin King in the 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth, a role Bowie played with dark menace, a spiky hair-do, and a pair of alarmingly well-stuffed pants Jareth was an evil, baby-snatching trickster with his own magical maze, yet also an object of unwilling desire. The movie bombed, but thanks in large part to Bowie‘s performance, has become a cult favorite.
Jareth is often considered a mash-up of Jared and Gareth, invented for the film. However it has been in rare use since at least the 19th century, perhaps a variant of Jared, or the surname name Jarrett, derived from either Gerard or Gerald. Since 1986 the name has become well-used in sci-fi/fantasy stories and games, so has gained a bit of geek chic.
For most people this name will be irrevocably linked with the Goblin King (even the character Jareth in Madam Secretary makes reference to it) so good luck getting anyone to believe your son’s name Jareth was inspired by anything other than Labyrinth. In 2014, there were 46 boys named Jareth in the US, and fewer than three in the UK.
Lazarus is the 2015 off-Broadway musical that was one of the last works David Bowie completed before he died, a surreal sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth. The title track Lazarus is not only Bowie‘s swan-song, but his final gift to his fans.
Lazarus is from the Greek form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, meaning “God has helped.” However, its significance far outweighs its etymology, as in the New Testament Lazarus is a close friend of Jesus Christ whom he raises from the dead, a foreshadowing of his own resurrection. Because of this, we use Lazarus to refer to any restoration of life, such as Lazarus syndrome, where a patient who has been declared dead by medics later recovers. That isn’t the only Lazarus in the Bible: Jesus told a parable about a beggar covered in sores named Lazarus, so a lazar house is another word for a leper colony.
Lazarus is a classic yet rare name — it has been in use since the Middle Ages without ever becoming common. In 2014 there were 171 boys named Lazarus in the US, and another 169 called Eleazar.