About Names: Dr. Evans on the name “Russell”

Bertrand Russell (Photo by Bassano 1936, Public Domain)

Bertrand Russell (Photo by Bassano 1936, Public Domain)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his April 7th column, he discusses the name “Russell”.

Maximus, John Nash, Jor-El and Noah all turn 60 today.

Actor Russell Crowe, born in New Zealand April 7, 1964, won an Oscar playing Maximus in “Gladiator” (2000). He was Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), Superman’s dad in “Man of Steel” (2013) and the ark-builder in “Noah” (2014).

Russell’s an English surname derived from Norman French Rousel, a nickname for a redhead. There were 221,558 Americans with Russell as a last name in 2010, ranking it 104th.

When using surnames as first names became common after 1700, Russell was one of the first to turn up. It was the surname of two noble families in England. John Russell (1795-1883), a fox-hunting vicar who first bred Jack Russell terriers, descended from the less prominent Devonshire Russells.

More famous was John Russell of Dorset (1485-1555), who King Edward VII made Earl of Bedford in 1551. But it was his three-greats-grandson, Lord William Russell (1639-1683), who was most responsible for turning Russell into a common given name.

Lord William, younger son of the fifth Earl of Bedford, was accused of participating in the “Rye House Plot” to kill King Charles II and his brother James. Though Russell wanted Catholic James barred from inheriting the throne, he denied planning to kill the king. After Russell was beheaded, he became a martyr to the Whigs in Parliament, who believed his trial was unjust.

In the next century, America’s revolutionaries used Russell as an example of the tyranny of British kings. Both John and Samuel Adams called him a martyr for liberty. American patriots named sons Russell in his honor.

An image of character Mona and her dog Russell on the popular Canadian Children’s Show “nanalan'” (Photo fair use)

Britain’s 1851 census found 449 men with Russell as a first name. In the 1850 United States census, when the two countries had about the same population, there were 3,519.

In 1880, when Social Security’s baby name lists start, Russell ranked 197th. It boomed over the next three decades, peaking at 49th in 1914 when 0.376% of boys received it.

Russell plateaued at around 65th until it suddenly jumped to 52nd in 1956, when 0.345% of newborns were Russells. This may be partly because of the career of basketball great Bill Russell (1934-2022). Probably more important was television sitcom “Make Room For Daddy” (1953-1964, later retitled “The Danny Thomas Show”), where Russell “Rusty” Hamer (1947-1990) played Danny Thomas’ young son Rusty. Famous cute kids often popularize baby names.