One of the perks — or hazards — of being related to me is becoming an example in this column.
My nephew, Charles Elliott, was born 31 years ago today.
He’s named Charles because my sister, Mary Evans Elliott, baby-sat a neighbor boy named Charlie when she was a teenager.
Mary thought Charles was a strong, masculine name and decided she’d use it when she had a son. Babies often get names mothers have “stored” since they were kids.
Charles is the French and English form of a Germanic word meaning “free man.” The first famous Charles was Charles Martel (688-741), King of the Franks, who defeated Muslim raiders at the Battle of Tours in 721.
The name spread throughout Europe after Martel’s grandson Charles was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, becoming Charlemagne, “Charles the Great.”
Norman conquerors brought the name to England in 1066. Some families with the last name Charles are descendants of Norman knights.
Charles wasn’t a favorite with the Normans, though, and vanished as a first name in the 1300s. Though a few noble families in northern England revived it around 1425, Charles didn’t become popular until the son of Mary Queen of Scots, born in 1566, was baptized as “Charles James.”
Though known as King James VI of Scotland, he named his second son Charles in 1600. When James became King of England on Elizabeth’s death in 1603, he brought a fashion for the name to London along with young Prince Charles.
In 1625, the prince became King Charles I. Despite his beheading in 1649 during the English Civil War, the name Charles steadily rose. When the monarchy was restored under Charles II in 1660, the name Charles ranked 12th for the next two decades.
In the 19th century, Charles became even more common in the United States than England. In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly name popularity charts begin, Charles ranked fourth. It was never lower than seventh between 1881 and 1929.
The decline of Charles has been very gradual. It was a top 10 name until 1955, and in the top 50 until 2000. It ranked 62nd in 2012 with 6,873 babies named Charles.
My sister loves the name Charles, but hates the nickname Chuck. No one was allowed to call her son that during his childhood.
When he was in high school, Charles had a band leader who thought it was cool to call him Chuck. Soon most of his friends picked it up.
Mary didn’t find out about this until a year after it started. Today he’s even “Chuck” on his Facebook page, though all of his relatives still call him “Charles.”
Expectant parents often ask me if they should use a name which has a common nickname they dislike. I always point to my sister’s example — you can control what the child is called within the family, but once they become teens all bets are off!
Many men officially named Charles are known as Chuck. Nebraska’s former senator and current U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and singer Chuck Berry are just a few.
But how did Chuck become a nickname for Charles? That’s still a bit mysterious.
In the 1500s “chuck” was a term of endearment. Several characters in Shakespeare’s plays are addressed as “dearest chuck” or “sweet chuck.” Many baby-name books assume the nickname Chuck derives from that.
That seems unlikely to me. “Chuck” for “Charles” is purely American and only about a century old. Why would American parents start using this obsolete Shakespearean word at that point?
The first widely known American man named Chuck was Chuck Connors.
No, fellow baby boomers, not actor Chuck Connors (1921-1992), fondly remembered star of TV Western “The Rifleman.” The first Chuck Connors was a con man and gangster called “The Mayor of Chinatown.”
Born George Washington O’Connor in 1852, the first Chuck Connors moved to New York City as a child and grew up in the Bowery neighborhood next to Chinatown.
Young Connors learned Chinese and gained the trust of Chinatown’s illegal opium dens, protecting them from non-Chinese thugs. Later in life Connors became friends with the publisher of “The Police Gazette,” a popular national tabloid. The paper ran many stories that made him a celebrity.
Connors conducted tours of Chinatown, where he told lurid tales about murders and women sold into slavery. The tour ended in a “real opium den” where Chinese actors pretended to be crazed addicts.
When Connors died in 1913, some of his obituaries gave his name as “Charles (Chuck) Connors,” even while pointing out that his real name was George. That’s the earliest reference I’ve found linking “Chuck” with “Charles.” The first sure examples of men called “Charles” in one census and “Chuck” in the next don’t happen until 1930.
It seems Americans decided that Charles needed a snappy nickname like Dick for Richard or Jack for John, and Connors’ story provided it.
Though Connors claimed his nickname was because he loved chuck steak, before 1910 most Americans with “Chuck” as part of their name were Chinese immigrants with names like Ah Chuck or Chuck Loo. So the nickname helped him fit in his chosen neighborhood.
Regardless of its origins or nicknames, Charles will always be a dear name to me. Happy birthday, nephew!