The Royal Baby, George Alexander Louis, shares his first name with some pretty notable people, contemporary and historical: George Washington, the Presidents Bush, George Clooney and several British monarchs, among scores of others. In honor of Wednesday's name announcement, we're reprinting this column on the origins of the name George. It originally appeared in 2011 in honor of Washington's birthday.
The name George is derived from the ancient Greek ge, “earth, ” and ergein, “to work, ” and meant “soil tiller.” In other words, the first George was a farmer.
George spread throughout Europe because of St. George, a soldier martyred in Palestine around 303 A.D. Little else is known about him.
Around 1000, the legend of St. George developed in the country of Georgia. In the story, a deadly dragon is fed human victims, chosen by lot. One day the king's daughter is chosen. As she waits near the dragon's lair, the Christian soldier George passes by. He conquers the dragon, leading it around using the princess's girdle as a leash. George makes the grateful king promise to show compassion to the poor. Returning Crusaders brought this tale back to western Europe. St. George became a symbol of chivalry. By 1300, he was considered patron saint of England, and by 1538, George was one of the most common names for English boys.
George got a boost in 1714 when Queen Anne died, and the German Hanoverians became the new royal family. For the next 116 years, a King George sat on the British throne. George was the third most popular name for boys in England, after John and William, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Augustine and Mary Washington probably named their first son after King George II. In 1732, most boys were named after relatives, but George Washington had no blood relatives named George.
The fact that Washington was named George saved the name from becoming unpopular in the new United States. Otherwise, Americans wouldn't have given sons the same name as the hated King George III.
The use of middle names increased when parents named sons after Washington while making clear they weren't named after the king. In the 1850 U.S. Census, 12 percent of the 451,016 Georges were listed with “W” as a middle initial.
Until 1911, George was one of the top five names for American boys. It then began a gradual decline. The first year George wasn't a top 10 name was 1938, and 1975 was the first year it fell below the top 50.
The presidencies of George H.W. and George W. Bush may have slowed the name's decline a bit but didn't reverse the trend. In 2009, the 2,352 Georges born in the United States ranked the name 163rd, its lowest ever.
Today, screenwriters often use George for ineffectual humorous characters, like George Costanza on the television series “Seinfeld.”
As a handsome leading man, actor George Clooney defies his name's image.
Clooney was named in 1961 after his father's uncle, George Guilfoyle.
Still, it's hard to see Hollywood casting Clooney as a character named George. He hasn't played one since handyman George Burnett on “The Facts of Life” in 1987.
Perhaps the Royal Baby will give the name George a boost with expectant parents.