What’s in a name? From criminal to elite, the history of ‘Outlaw’

Philly’s new police commissioner has an interesting surname.

Incoming Philly Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw; North Carolina property records from the late 18th century

Incoming Philly Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw; North Carolina property records from the late 18th century

Bastian Slabbers for WHYY; FamilySearch
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Philly’s new head of police is a California native named Danielle Outlaw.

When she’s sworn in as commissioner in February, Outlaw will be the first Black woman ever to hold the post. That historic milestone wasn’t lost on Philadelphians.

The recognition played out alongside some social media smirking. Let’s be honest — a high ranking law enforcement officer named “Outlaw” is pretty hilarious.

The name is indubitably inaptronymous. Which is to say, a person named Outlaw working in law enforcement is ironic, because the name is the opposite of the profession. (Etymology hobbyist Adam Aleksic taught Billy Penn that word.)

As it happens, Outlaw is the incoming commissioner’s married name. Her family name is Bowman.

Still, with a surname that invokes criminality, Outlaw joins a list of notable examples of inaptronym-carrying folks. For example, Robin Mahfood, CEO of a Christian anti-hunger organization, or Jaime Sin, a late Catholic cardinal.

We knew there had to be something to the last name beyond the jokes. Here’s what we found out.

Outlaw is an old Old English name

Outlaw comes out of an Old English word with Old Norse roots — utlaga, meaning basically “outside of the law.”

It became a name when the French linguistic style took over in the medieval era, according to onomastician and past president of the American Name Society, Dr. Edward Callary.

“In Old English times, one who was convicted of certain crimes was denied the benefits and protections of the law and was literally ‘out of the law’; people so convicted were naturally known as outlaws,” Callary said in an email. “[W]hen family names were imposed after the French conquest of 1066, some of those took Outlaw as their family name because they were known by no other.”

Several name research websites note that the first recorded examples of the title — including original spellings like Outlawe, Utlage or Outlagh — are from 13th century medieval England.

A recounting of early Utlage heritage

A recounting of early Utlage heritage

British Museum via archive.org

Here, it has North Carolina roots

In America, the surname has deep roots in North Carolina, which still has the highest concentration of the cognomen.

“There were several Outlaw families in the Carolinas by the first US census in 1790,” said Callary, the onomastician.

Two North Carolina state reps. from around that time were George Outlaw, born in 1771, and David Outlaw, born in 1806. Outlaw was also the surname of a Confederate Civil War captain named Edward, who appears to be related.

The family is associated with a number of plantations in North Carolina. There was one maintained by George himself, and then Liberty Hall, also known as Outlaw House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Liberty Hall was most closely associated with Edward, according to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form.

Information on the form depicts the Outlaw family as a network of “prosperous planters,” a term commonly used for plantation owners who held 20 or more enslaved people. Enslaved Black Americans lived and worked on the plantation, and oftentimes enslaved people took on the last names of the families who owned plantations to which they were tied.

During the 1840 census, 43% of Outlaws lived in North Carolina, according to ancestry.com, a family-tracing website that compiles and digitizes historical records. By 1920, the name had spread all over the U.S., but was still most concentrated in North Carolina.

Today, North Carolina is home to the the highest concentrations of folks named Outlaw in the country.

Liberty Hall, aka the Outlaw House

Liberty Hall, aka the Outlaw House

National Register of History Places

Outlaw is still a pretty rare last name

It’s probably easy to believe that there aren’t many people in the world who get to call themselves Outlaws with pride. In fact, only about 11,100 people in the world claim the appellative, according to United Kingdom-based genealogy website Forebear.

That’s about 0.00015%of the world population. It’s the 46,519th most common last name in the world.

Compare that to more prevalent last names of the last few PPD commissioners:

  • Sylvester Johnson, who held the post between 2002 and 2008 boasts the 166th most common surname in the world.
  • Ramsey, as in former commissioner Charles Ramesy, is the 4807th most common name.
  • And Ross, the name of the most recent appointed police commissioner, is the 1,100th most common surname worldwide.

Other well-known Outlaws include retired Orlando Magic player Bo Outlaw and former 76ers forward Travis Outlaw, no relation.

Outlaw still reigns supreme in North Carolina, where 1,854 bear the surname. Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida see the next highest number of Outlaws.

In Philadelphia, there are 173 people with the family name Outlaw, which is actually the fourth highest number of people per county in the country. Pennsylvania, where Smith is the most commonly held last name, has 283 people surnamed Outlaw. With the addition of Danielle Outlaw and her family, the city and state will have a few more.

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