Last summer, my husband and I took a vacation to Seattle to visit relatives, including his grandmother, who happens to live in a nursing home. Name enthusiast that I am, I took this opportunity to scan the nameplates on the residents’ doors, figuring I’d see plenty of old gems worthy of revival. Among the expected Dorothys and Helens and Franceses and Patricias, I spotted a name I’d never seen:
My first thought: What’s a six-year-old doing in a nursing home? The name seemed strangely anachronistic, more akin to the Hayleighs and Carlees of today than the Dorothys and Helens of her generation. Were her parents 80 years ahead of their time, I wondered. Had they just invented something that sounded cute to them? Or was this a legitimate name with a century-old history of use?
The U.S. Social Security website shows that Arleigh has not been ranked in the top 1000 names any time during the last 130 years. However, the spelling Arlie ranked for females almost every year between 1883 and 1922. What may be more surprising to us is that Arlie was even more popular for males — it ranked in the top 1000 from 1880 until 1962, peaking at #369 in 1904. (This is not such a surprise, however, when we remember that Shirley and Ashley were once almost exclusively masculine.)
The 1910 U.S. Census shows over 6,000 Arlies, over 2,000 Arleys, and almost 500 Arleighs. (Granted, you were about 50 times as likely to run into an Arthur as an Arlie, but the name was still in use.) Men made up 65% of the Arlies, 84% of the Arleys, and overwhelming 89% of the Arleighs. This is strange to my modern eyes, as “-leigh” spellings are now seen as almost exclusively feminine. The SSA data for 2009 shows 11 girls’ names spelled with the “-leigh” sequence (e.g., Ryleigh, Ashleigh, Hayleigh) and zero boys’ names. Any mother considering calling her son Ryleigh today would be told that spelling looked too girly — well, that was certainly not the case 100 years ago.
The most reliable name sites give the meaning of Arlie as “eagle wood.” (A few sites consider it a variation of Harley and give the definition as “hare clearing” or “rabbit meadow.) This puts Arlie in the category of Old-English-place-name-surnames-turned-given-names, with the likes of Riley, Ashley, Wesley, Preston, Dalton, Landon, and Hayley — all of which are quite fashionable today.
Arlie makes an interesting alternative for modern parents, as it is one surname-name that has yet to be discovered. Only two currently-living Arlies have been important enough to make Wikipedia — one is a female sociology professor at UC Berkeley, and the other is a male state representative in North Carolina. The meaning especially might appeal to patriotic parents in the U.S., as the bald eagle is our national symbol.
My main hesitation with this one is that it sounds somewhat incomplete — like Harley or Carly with the front end lopped off. But if your husband wants to name the baby Harley and you are adamant that your daughter will NOT be named after a motorcycle, Arleigh might be a workable alternative. Or if you are one who laments the fact that it’s no longer advisable to name a son Ashley, then Arley could be an interesting choice. Though it may still sound feminine to some, it hasn’t even been discovered by girls’ parents, much less stolen completely — your little masculine Arley will be the only Arley anyone knows.
So what do you think? Would you be in favor of Arlie on a child today? And which gender?