Great-Grandmother Revisited

October 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

Late 18th/early 19th Century women are inspiring our baby names.

Isn’t it funny how, growing up, you’d hear a name – like Eloise – and you’d chuckle a little bit. And you could, because no one named Eloise could actually hear you say it, most people named Eloise were born before the turn of the 20th Century and weren’t hanging out on the playground with all us kids of the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s.

Now, those very names that made us turn up our noses as kids – Hazel, Hattie and Agnes, too – are super hot these days. Since May, ironically around the time that Philippa (Pippa) Middleton hit the scene with her old-fashioned moniker, celebs have given their daughters some distinctly old-fashioned names. It’s also no coincidence that a hot show like Downton Abbey takes place in the thick of our great-grandparents’ generation. The Crawley sisters are as old as my great-grandmother was during World War I, and names like Edith, Cora, and maybe even Sybil could benefit from/contribute to the recent trend.

(My sense is that, in Britain, this show is a full-on trendsetter; it’s still fringe in North America. Of course, that means I love it.)

Jennifer Connolly and Paul Bettany welcomed daughter Agnes Lark in late May. Agnes has floated around the last few years, and it was used by actress Elisabeth Shue when she welcomed her daughter Agnes Charles in 2006. The recent trend of looking at your great-grandparents’ branch of the family tree for naming inspiration (or at least, names from that era) will certainly help Agnes’ cause in the realm of baby name popularity. The Latin form of the Greek name Hagnes (from the male name Hagnos) means “pure, holy.” In the 4th Century, Saint Agnes was a young Roman virgin, martyred by Emperor Diocletian. Her emblem is a lamb, which is because her name so closely resembles the Latin word agnus, which means “lamb.” Agnes, who was only 12 or 13 at the time she was killed, refused to marry the son of the Roman prefect, Sempronius. Because Roman law outlawed the execution of virgins, Sempronius is said to have had her dragged naked through the streets of Rome to a brothel, where she was raped and beaten by Roman men. It was also said that all of the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind. There was then a trial from which Sempronius excused himself, and another figure presided, sentencing her to death. When led out to die she was tied to a stake, but the bundle of wood would not burn, or the flames parted away from her, whereupon the officer in charge of the troops drew his sword and beheaded her, or, in some other texts, stabbed her in the throat. It is also said that the blood of Agnes poured to the stadium floor where other Christians soaked up the blood with cloths.

The name has many variant forms to suit any national ancestry – stylish and literary Anais is French (popularized by 20th Century French-Cuban writer Anais Nin), Agnethe/a is German, Agnese is Italian, Annest is Welsh, and Agnieska is Polish. Around the turn of the 20th Century, Agnes was well within the Top 100 in the US for girls names, but fell quickly and dropped out of the Top 1000 entirely by 1960. More modern nicknames like Aggie could also help the cause of Agnes, as could hipster model favourite Agyness Deyn (the “y” is silent).

In June, actress Denise Richards announced the adoption of daughter Eloise Joni. At the time, her rep explained the choice of name: “Eloise Joni Richards is named after Denise’s mom (Joni) and Denise and her daughters Sami and Lola chose the name Eloise.” The sibset is a slightly awkward one, there’s no question – Sami is modern, laid back, and tomboyish, Lola is ultra-girly, uber-trendy, and exotic, while Eloise is old-fashioned and feels mighty proper – and yet, what feels right for a family must be just fine. And though she chose the middle name for her mother, who died of cancer in 2007, the name Joni, too, is trending up again.

In the US, Eloise peaked inside the US Top 200 in 1920, but fell out of the Top 1000 by 1962, climbing back just inside in 2009. Richards’ selection will bump it up slightly, as will the fact that Elly is a beloved and popular nickname choice these days, while Lou isn’t bad, either. In England, the name is much more popular, having floated around the bottom of the Top 100 across the Atlantic in the middle of the past decade, which is perhaps natural as names like Elizabeth and Louise have remained fairly common in the UK throughout the 20th Century, as well. The name Eloise is Old German, and means “famous warrior.” It’s also the French variation of Louise, made famous in the 12th Century by the love affair of Peter Abelard, a French philosopher and theologian, and Heloise d’Argenteuil, who was one of his pupils. The intellectually-motivated couple had a son, named Astrolabius – after the astrolabe, a classical instrument used by astronomers to predict the position of the Sun, moon, and stars. They married secretly, but Heloise was hidden in a convent to protect Abelard’s growing career. One of Abelard’s contemporaries, Fulbert, believed Abelard had done wrong by Heloise and for that, Abelard was castrated. His romantic life was over. Heloise was forced to live out the rest of her days in a convent, in spite of the fact that her intellectual teachings left too much doubt in her mind, and she therefore shunned Christianity.

While the popularity of Lily is attributed to floral trends more often than it’s viewed as a modernized tribute to old-fashioned Lillian, it may only have been a matter of time before Lillian’s popularity rebounded on the tail of Top 10 Lily (and may also explain the recent rise in the use of names like Lucinda or Rosie). In September, actress Mary McCormack welcomed daughter Lillian, called Lil for short. While inspiration on Denise Richards’ three girl names is varied, McCormack has played the traditional card with every one of hers – Margaret was born in 2005, and Rose was born in 2007. Each of her daughters also has the same middle name – with tradition in mind, their middle name is her surname.

Unlike Agnes and Eloise, Lillian hasn’t disappeared from the US Top 500 at all in the last 100 years, but dipped considerably through the Boomer and Gen X years, beginning it’s climb again in the early ’90s. Perhaps the popularity of the Nickelodeon cartoon, Rugrats, with twins Phil and Lil (Philip and Lillian), helped give it a boost? But more than likely, the popularity of Lily played into Lillian’s regrowth, landing it inside the US Top 100 in 2010 (#98). While parents may have full intentions of using a nickname, they’ll give daughters a long-form to provide them with choice.

Lillian is considered Latin for “lily,” but I’ve also wondered if this isn’t an early example of a name contraction – taking Lily and Ann and making a new name. Ann is Hebrew for “God has favoured me.”

One of the headline baby names of the year is Hattie Margaret McDermott, born almost two weeks ago to Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott. Margaret was to honour Tori’s childhood nanny, with whom she was closer than her mother, Candy. Hattie is a diminutive of Harriet or Henrietta, both Old German names meaning “home ruler.” Sticking simply with Hattie is modern, as Harriet may be a bit much for today’s parents. Hattie was a hugely popular name at the turn of the 20th Century (Top 50 in the US), and like Agnes and Eloise dropped out of the Top 1000 entirely by the early 1960s.

Haddie Braverman is also a character on the US TV show, Parenthood. I have no idea what, if anything, Haddie is intended to be short for, but Google indicates that, possibly, it’s short for Hadden (Old English for “hill of heather.”)

Incidentally, Haddie’s parents on the show, Adam and Kristina (played by Peter Krause and Monica Potter), just welcomed a second daughter whose name is also perfectly suited to the Great-Grandmother Revisted trend – Nora. We’ve seen Nora on Jason Bateman’s daughter Francesca “Frannie” Nora, and it’s a four-letter selection that could have serious legs, especially with the pleasing spelling variation, Norah (like jazz singer Norah Jones). Nora is a nickname derived from multiple sources – Eleanor (Greek for “light,” and another example of the GGR trend), Honora (Latin for “woman of honor”), Leonora (Greek for “compassion, light”), and in Scotland is the female form of Norman, and thus would be a Germanic name meaning “north woman.”

Nora’s popularity peaked in the late-19th Century, but has never fallen out of the Top 500 in the US. Still, it bottomed out in the year 2000, and has climbed back up to the Top 200 in the past 10 years. It’s also immensely popular in Sweden, a Top 60 name throughout the last decade.

This trend was used most spectacularly (and publicly) when Julia Roberts welcomed twins Hazel Patricia and Phinnaeus “Finn” Walter in 2004. Hazel is Old English for “the hazel tree,” and is also an eye-colour somewhere between brown and green. Though polarizing as a name, it’s more popular than you think. Hazel peaked in 1890 and dropped out of the US Top 1000 by 1970, reentering in 1997 and climbing steadily. In 2003, Hazel was a Top 700 name – by the end of 2005 it was Top 500 at still climbing (today it’s about the 300th most popular girl’s name in the US). In Canada and Ireland the name has found some ground, dropping in and out of the Top 100 in those countries over the last ten years.

We’ve grown used to seeing GGR names like Ruby, Mae, and Estelle, but what about Iona and Ada? Ada’s simplicity has helped it immensely through the years (of all the names in this post, only Lillian has charted higher, longer in the US over the past 121 years; and was still relevant in the Boomer years). It’s Old German for “noble,” but could also be a Latin variation of the Hebrew name Adah, which means “adornment.” It also just so happens to be a pet name for currently hot Ad- names like Adele, Adelaide, and Addison. Last year, southern rocker Chris Daughtry welcomed daughter Adalynn Rose, which is a brand new representation for this name that first appeared in the 18th Century.

This summer, British adventurer Ben Fogle welcomed daughter Iona, sister to Ludovic (called Ludo). Iona is an island in the Greek Hebrides where St. Columba founded a monastery of the Celtic Church in the 6th Century. This name has followed the same trends as the rest of the names in this post, but has never been as popular. It peaked inside the US Top 400 in 1900, and had fallen out of the Top 1000 by 1940, but I think it has potential.

When it comes to boys, it’s much harder to pin this trend down, primarily because popular boys’ names have been popular for hundreds of years, in some cases. Therefore, names popular around the turn of the 20th Century have remained relevant throughout. In some ways, with Henry/Harry finding such strong footing of late, you could mix it in with the GGR trend, but the name Henry has never really faded. I would be more inclined to highlight names like Arthur (from artos, it’s Celtic for “bear” and Irish Gaelic for “stone”), and Elliott (Greek/Hebrew for “the Lord is my God”), but trends on these names simply don’t act the same as the girl names in this post.

Any GGR names you’re digging right now? Any you’d particularly like to see come up?


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