Wednesday, April 10

let's talk about: Charles

detail from the Crowning of Charlemagne by Raphael, via Flickr

It's my husband's birthday today, so I thought I'd take a closer look at his middle name, Charles — versatile and familiar, charming and sturdy, it's a modern classic that has been a steady presence in the English-speaking name world since at least the 8th (yes, the 8th!) century.

Though it was first recorded in Anglo-Saxon times as Cearl or Ceorl (there was a King Cearl of Mercia, which is in modern-day England, who ruled in the early part of the 7th century), we have Charlemagne to thank for Charles' rise in popularity. It was so associated with the Carolingian dynasty that it became the standard word for "king" in many languages. Because it is so old, its meaning is debated, but is basically agreed to mean "man," sometimes qualified as "old man," "free man," "slave," "nobleman," or "warrior," depending on the source. Charlemagne ruled over most of Europe, and the name has been used by Holy Roman Emperors and kings from places as varied as France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Hungary. It became popular in Britain in the 17th century thanks to the Stuart king, Charles I.

Charles has been in the top 100 in the US for as far back as online data shows. In 1880, it ranked as high as #4. From 1880 to 1954 it was in the top 10 — that is definitely the mark of a well-used, well-loved name with broad appeal. After 1954, though, it started to decline in popularity. By the mid-'60s it had fallen to #20, and with each passing decade it has lost more ground. It currently ranks at #62, still very high, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it lose a bit more ground in the coming years. Interestingly, Charlie as a name, on its own, ranks at #236, and has been gaining popularity since the beginning of the 1990s. 

Charles has many lovely variants, including Catalan Carles, Croatian Karlo, Finnish Kaarle and Kalle, Hungarian Károly, Irish Séarlas, Spanish Carlos and Carlito, and Welsh Searl. Feminine forms like Caroline and Charlotte are classics in their own right — at #27, Charlotte is currently more popular than Charles, and Caroline is not too far behind, at #87.

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