Spotlight on: Kelly

One of you readers emailed me asking about the name Kelly! I haven’t heard anyone consider the name Kelly in a long time, it’s definitely in hibernation until its spring comes again (which it will, as it does for most names).

You know I love doing name research! So off to the dusty shelves I went and did indeed find a saint whose name is sometimes anglicized to Kelly: St. Cellach of Armagh. How cool! Behind the Name concurs that Kelly is a form of, as it spells it, Ceallach, whose meaning is uncertain but could include “bright-headed,” or from Old Irish ceallach “war, strife” or ceall “church.” I love the “church” meaning!

And in fact, that ties into another very cool thing about the name Cellach: there was a Cellach, the Abbott of the monastery at Iona (not the St. Cellach mentioned above), who fled raiding Vikings with his brethren and went to the Abbey of Kells (though “kells” here not having any connection to Cellach), which had been founded by St. Columba a couple hundred years earlier. Kells strikes me as a really easy way to update the name Kelly while retaining its Irishness and adding a shot of faith, no? Kells gave its name to the Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript by those monks from Iona of the four gospels that has been described as one of Europe’s greatest treasures, and my favorite tidbit about it is that it “presents the earliest Madonna and Child image in any western manuscript” (source).

So I could see a Kelly taking St. Cellach of Armagh as patron, and loving the gospel/Marian/St. Columba connection of the similar-sounding and similarly spelled Kells. This could work for both a boy and girl, and in fact Kelly started as a male name, from the Irish surname. These days Kelly is nearly 100% girl (no. 514 for girls in 2016 as opposed to not at all in the top 1000 for boys), but thinking about St. Cellach and the Abbott Cellach definitely shows Kelly’s initial masculinity. I can also see parents loving Kells as a given name, and that might work better for boys these days.

For girls, names like Callie, Kayley/Keeley/Kiley, Ellie, and Zelie seem to have filled the Kelly spot for current parents, do you agree? But Kelly’s still familiar and fits in easily with those names I think.

What do you all think of Kelly? Do you know any little Kellys? Would you name your daughter Kelly, or have you? What about for a boy? Can you see Kelly working, or do you think Kells is a better option? Or neither?



42 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Kelly

  1. My uncle is Kelly and my sister is Kelli. My uncle wanted one of my sons named for himself and my sister, and since Kelly is a family name, we wanted to honor the request….but neither of us liked just the name Kelly … it wasn’t enough of a saint name for us as it was.

    So we very briefly considered the name Killian bc it was the closest we could get, but neither of us were sold on it.

    Then, a few months later, all in one day, the name Killian kept falling into our laps over and over and my sister kept saying “it’s a sign!” Lol – so we decided to go with it, not knowing much about the name.

    When we looked up the meaning later, we saw it meant “Little Kelly.”

    How perfect! So Killian he is…and everyone got their Kelly.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love this! And I’d never known Kilian was related to Kelly! I just looked it up and yes, Killian is a diminutive of the name relating to “church,” which might be Cellach’s meaning. I love that! How perfect for your family!!


  2. I know a couple named Pat and Kelly. I still have a hard time squaring their names with their genders – Kelly is the man, Pat the woman, and I have known them my whole life (so an older generation). To me they are mixed up, opposite of what you would think or is common now. I mean I know other women that use Pat as a nickname for Patricia, but to me it’s a nickname for [male] Patrick. And it seems to ring true your comment on how Kelly is almost 100% girl now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love Kelly! I admit I didn’t know that Kelly was first a male name until I watched Chigago Fire (one of the protagonists is Kelly Severide) and researched about it. Now, I totally prefer Kelly for a boy than a girl – though, Kells is awesome (and so masculine). I, personally, know only one Kelly (she’s a she) and her actual given name Rita Kelly (double given name, because middles don’t exist in our culture). Kelly is not spelled this way on her birth certificate, but she hates her spelling so she uses the traditional one.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I was referring to Brazilian culture in general – TRADITIONALLY, we have one or two given names and two surnames (the very concept of middle name doesn’t exist here), though just because you have a double name does not mean you use the full thing daily (like Maria Helena is just Helena in every situation besides formal ones). “What spelling your friend has on her birth certificate?” Qu3ly.

        Liked by 1 person

      • WOW! What a spelling! Is it meant to be a different spelling of Kelly, or is it another name entirely? I love Mary/Maria double names and going by the second name is so great!


      • A different spelling of Kelly, her parents heard this name somewhere (probably, watching an American TV show) and just applied Portuguese grammar rules when spelling the name. “I love Mary/Maria double names and going by the second name is so great!” I used to dislike this tradition (like they were wasting Maria, which is a BEAUTIFUL name), but it’s really growing on me.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve known men and women named Kelly, so the idea of Kelly on a boy doesn’t phase me at all. It actually feels fresher to me. I know of a baby boy whose middle name is Kelly after his grandmother, and his parents got compliments on it. Perhaps it’s a regional thing? I’m in the South.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I know both male and female Kelly/Kellie’s (adults) and a family for whom it is their surname
    I’ve always loved the name but don’t know of any children named it- but I know several dogs called Kelly 🙂
    I suspect you are right that it was replaced by the Kylie,Keely,Karley (and their multitude of spellings)
    trend of the 80s and 90s and just hasn’t made its way back.
    It’s a name I would love to hear in use again

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I went to school with a few boys named Kelly. I also knew several girls named Kelly or Kelli or Kellie. It’s a unisex name to me. There’s a local prosecutor in her 50s called Kelly and I have a cousin in her early 20s called Kelli. I haven’t seen it as often on young kids.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. My middle name is Kelly, but it’s a family last name. I had 2 male and 2 female classmates with the name growing up, but I was closest to the one of the boys, so I actually think of it more as a male name – since as my middle name, it’s a surname, not a regular female name. I will definitely pass it down as one of my kids’ middle names but not sure which gender. My husband has a family surname as a middle name too, and I considered flip-flopping which gender we pass down our middle names to.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I know people of this name male, female, and surname! Seems common in my pocket of the world! I know a married couple where both husband and wife share this as their first name!

    I do agree with Kym that Kelly as a male name feels fresher to me and I’d love to see it come back! I like Kells a whole lot, too.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I know a Ron and Ronda and Hunter and Hunter. The Hunters said that it was their shared name that brought them together. I think that it is much more common than you’d expect. Also couples with matching names or middle names (Mary and Joseph; Kim and Tim) and or sharing names with immediate family members. I know of a junior who married a woman with the same name as his mother. It wasn’t an overly popular name either. It makes me wonder how much of it is just coincidence (and/or popular names) and how much of a role a shared or matching name plays in drawing a couple together – or the opposite.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s fascinating! The only example I have of this kind of thing is a friend of ours who married a man whose last name is the same as her first name (slightly different spelling). But she went ahead and took his name and owns it!


  9. Kelly as a male name is so handsome. I knew a male Kelly in high school. He was 3 years older than me, super attractive but really kind, baseball star and played trumpet in the marching band. He probably influences my view of the name but when I hear Kelly on a male, it sounds so confident. I would love to hear it used more often.

    I also knew a male named Kerry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I grew up with a male Carrie too (yes, he spelled it that way). It wasn’t till later in life I realized it was more a predominately female name.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi there, I was just browsing really and thought id check the meaning of my name which is “kelly” Kelly McCarthy that is. I was told i was named after the song “kelly from the Isle of Man” . My mom was from england, my dad ireland. I was born in U.S. and i always thought “kelly” meant strength or strong, at least thats what id found in stores, like those little liscence plates and such but recently i learned that no one really knows but “warrior”, “bright headed” “war or strife” (yuck) were mentioned browsing on line, however in Hebrew it supposedly means “Toast” lol, anyway i basically replied to this because you mentioned the name Kerry which i found quite curious because thats my brothers name spelling too! My brother and i always thought our names should have been switched since kelly was basically a masculine name and it seemed kerry (but spelled differently) feminine. I know this all means nothing to you, i just thought it fun to reply. Peace to you..Kelly M.

        Liked by 1 person

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