Only in modern times can a Jewish guy with two Scottish given names become famous playing a Belgian instrument in an African-American style.
Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G, born in Seattle as Kenneth Bruce Gorelick in 1956, appears at the Ralston Arena on Thursday.
Kenneth is the English form of two ancient Gaelic names. The first, Cainnech, meant “handsome.”
The most famous Cainnech was an Irish abbot who died around 600. Known today as St. Canice or St. Kenneth, he started monasteries and churches across Ireland and in Dál Riata, a kingdom along the west coast of modern Scotland founded by Gaelic-speaking Irish settlers called Scots.
During St. Kenneth's time, most of Scotland was controlled by the Picts, who spoke a Celtic language closer to Welsh than Gaelic. Around 842, a Gaelic-speaking man called Cináed son of Ailpin became King of the Picts. Some experts think Cináed was a Pictish name, though it's usually interpreted as meaning “born of fire” in Gaelic.
By 1200, Cináed was remembered as “Kenneth MacAlpin,” who conquered the Picts and became first king of a united Scotland. Though modern historians think the merger between Scots and Picts was mostly peaceful and gradual, legends of Kenneth winning “great battles” led to his name becoming common in Scotland.
The name stayed primarily Scottish for centuries. In the United Kingdom census of 1841, there were 2,474 Kenneths in Scotland and only 137 in England, though England's population was six times greater.
In the United States, Kenneth also had Scottish connections. In the 1850 census, 37 percent of the 324 Kenneths were born in North Carolina, 10 times the number expected in a state with only 3.7 percent of the total population.
Before the Revolutionary War, North Carolina was the main destination for emigrants from the Scottish Highlands to the American colonies. Scotland County, N.C., is named for those settlers. Kenneth was much more common in North Carolina than Pennsylvania, showing that even the Scots-Irish were not using the name very much in the early 19th century.
This started to change as novelists began using Kenneth as a name for characters. One of the first was Sir Kenneth, Prince Royal of Scotland, hero of Sir Walter Scott's “The Talisman,” set during the Crusades.
In 1850, English writer Charlotte Yonge published “Kenneth,” the tale of a Scottish boy and his sister saved by French soldiers during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812.
Scottish author Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) also helped the name through the fame of his classic 1902 children's book “The Wind in the Willows.”
Scott, Yonge, Grahame, and other authors brought Kenneth to the attention of non-Scottish parents. By 1925, Kenneth was among the top 10 names for boys born in England, though after 1940 it had fallen off considerably.
In the United States, Kenneth's fashion came a bit later but lasted longer. Though Kenneth's peak year, when it ranked 13th, was in 1939, it was among the top 20 names for boys between 1924 and 1964. In 1957 and 1958, just after Kenny G was born, it ranked 14th. So baby boomers are just as likely to be called Kenneth as their fathers were.
Kenneth's decline since 1964 has been gradual. It was one of the top 100 names until 2002. The 2,199 Kenneths born in 2012 ranked the name 175th.
Naturally, there are many well-known men named Kenneth in all walks of life. Kenneth Wherry (1892-1951) was a United States senator from Nebraska who served as minority leader during his last two years in office. Today television evangelist Kenneth Copeland, fashion designer Kenneth Cole and actor Kenneth Branagh keep the name in the public eye.
There are probably more Kenneths, though, who are famous to the public as Kens. Ken Kesey (1935-2001), was author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and Ken Follett is the author of best-selling thrillers.
Astronaut Ken Mattingly, television producer Ken Burns, baseball player Ken Griffey Jr., Ultimate Fighting champion Ken Shamrock and “Jeopardy” quiz show winner Ken Jennings have achieved fame in widely different fields.
The pet form Kenny has been separately among the top 1,000 names for American boys since 1929, peaking at 169th place in 1960. Musicians seem to prefer that form of the name — in addition to Kenny G, country singers Kenny Rogers and Kenny Chesney are known to millions.
Like many names falling off in fashion, Kenneth and Kenny are starting to be used more as names of silly characters. Fans of television sitcom “30 Rock” are familiar with overly cheerful and clueless page Kenneth Parcell, played by Jack McBrayer. Kenneth, son of a Georgia pig farmer, thinks he's never drunk alcohol until he discovers it's what his family called “hill people milk.”
Even better known is Kenny McCormick, the fourth-grader on the animated series “South Park” who was killed in most episodes during the first seven seasons, but who is miraculously alive again the next week. Fans of the show made “Oh, my God, they killed Kenny!” a popular catchphrase.
Fans know Kenny G for his nice-guy personality as well as for his music. That gives his name a less ridiculous image than Parcell or McCormick.
As the best-selling instrumental musician in the world, he's also one of the most successful Kenneths ever. His name, meanwhile, is just as successful a Scottish export as golf and single malt whiskey.