About A Name: Tristan

October 30, 2011 § 7 Comments

James Franco starred in the 2006 film version of Tristan and Isolde’s Arthurian legend.

When Donald Trump, Jr. and wife wife Vanessa announced Tristan Milos as the name of their third child, born October 2 in New York City, I honestly didn’t bat an eyelash. But clearly my tastes are only one small piece of the puzzle that can sometimes feel like baby name trends. And I honestly don’t know that I would have written a feature post if not for Waltzing More than Matilda‘s Anna, who had done far more research on the name than I – and she inspired me!

I got as far as figuring that Tristan either meant “sad,” a colloquialized name from the French triste, but may have also come from the Pictish name, Drostan, when I wondered whether Tristram could rise with this name in popularity in my post When Meaning Does Matter on Thursday. This origin jibes with the Arthurian legend of Tristan and Isolde. The Celtic legend tells that Tristan, a Knight of the Round Table, is sent by King Mark of Cornwall to fetch Isolde of Ireland, who King Mark is to marry. Tristan and Isolde fall in love, but Isolde has to marry the King, so their love is doomed. Their story was the subject of German composer Wagner’s 19th Century opera, Tristan and Isolde. The story has been known by slightly different variations: Tristan and Isolda, or Tristran (the most obvious precursor to Tristram?) and Ysolt, or Iseult. The spelling depends on the region and the era in which the folk story is being told.

It’s believed that Tristan is derived from the name Drust (or Drustanus), of Welsh origin, and means “the loud one.” (Cheekily perfect name for a newborn, if you have a sense of humour about things!) The stem, which means “noise,” has contributed to modern Welsh trwst/trwystau meaning “noise/noises,” and the verb trystio (“to clatter”). It’s ironic that this meaning seems opposite to the French triste, which is actually believed to have inspired the modern form of the name from a cultural, literary and folkloric standpoint.

Tristan was the name of Brad Pitt’s character in the film Legends of the Fall, where he played a frontier-era Montana wildman who essentially loses his mind when his younger brother is killed in World War I – this association may be what helps this name, which feels distinctly British, fall in trend with other Urban Cowboy selections like Weston and Boone – maybe the most urban. Tristan Wilds currently stars on the CW’s 90210 remake, and previously appeared on the critically-acclaimed The Wire. The feminine Trista is worn by former Bachelorette star Trista Rehn Sutter, who with her firefighter husband (and show pick) Ryan has had son Maxwell Alston, called Max, and daughter Blakesley Grace – two influential selections on American naming tastes. Trista is regarded as either a feminine form of Tristan, or a variant of Christa (Latin form of Christopher, meaning “follower of Christ.”)

And the Trumps are hardly the first to use the boy name Tristan, with multiple variations on spelling. British actor Alan Bates welcomed twin sons Benedick and Tristan in 1971, and in 1977 British playwright Andrew Birkin (brother of actress Jane, who is the mother of French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg) welcomed David Tristan. In 1986, actor Peter Strauss welcomed a son named Tristan, followed one year later by gospel singer Anthony Hamilton. In 1999, country musician Travis Tritt and his now-wife, Theresa, welcomed a son named Tristan James – his big sister is Tyler Reese, and younger brother is Tarian Nathaniel. In the last decade, Dutch footballer Patrick Paauwe welcomed son Tristen in 2002, NFLer Dan Wilcox had Tristan Blake in 2005, the same year baseball pro Chipper Jones had son Tristen Clay, called Tris. In 2009, Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson adopted a son named Dash Tristan with his wife, Melinda Ledbetter.

Spelling this name with a Y is generally avoided because of the closeness to the word “tryst,” usually deemed a less-than-pious romantic encounter. But it is still used (see below), and in 2007 figure skaters Elena Berezhnaya of Russia, and Steven Cousins of Great Britain, welcomed son Trysten.

Tristan is the 87th most popular baby name in the United States, and has been consistently among the top 1,000 names given to baby boys since 1971. Alternate forms of the name within the Top 1000 for 2011 include Tristen (343), Triston (533), Tristin (536), Tristian (727), Trystan (1000), while Tristram and Tristyn have been recorded. It’s unisex qualities are also not at all out of the question, with the name so phonetically similar to Kristin. I went to school with a girl named Tristin, whose parents were total hippies, but their name choices a little bit Posh Britannia – her younger sister was named Jemma. It’s because of her that I grew up believing that Tristan was actually a girl’s name, after all, and I like it for both, to be honest.

The volcanic islands of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic – nearest land, the other tiny island of St. Helena, is 2,430km away – make up the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. It is administered as a British overseas territory with St. Helena and Ascension Islands. Tristan da Cunha was named for 16th Century Portuguese explorer and naval commander Tristão de Cunha, who first sighted the islands in 1506 but couldn’t land due to rough seas. He named the main island after himself, Ilha de Tristão da Cunha, which was later anglicised to Tristan da Cunha Island. The only habitable part of Tristan is a small plateau at the foot of the cliffs on the northwest side of the island, resulting in a small population of about 300. This place is an itinerary destination on some exotic Southern Hemisphere cruises, but takes five to six days to reach via fishing boat from the nearest mainland, South Africa, over 2,800km away. This is because there is no airstrip on the island – there’s no way to build one, the island is primarily vertical volcanic rock. However, due to plentiful fishing and the sale of stamps, the island can support itself financially. It’s also one of my personal favourite stories behind the name as a travel junkie.

My Advice? It just doesn’t feel like there’s any reason not to use Tristan (but Dristan is a nasal mist, so avoid the origin if you can!)

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§ 7 Responses to About A Name: Tristan

  • Yes I see what you mean – Brad Pitt took the name from upper class British to Western cowboy just like that! Never really thought about it before.

    If people worry about it being too unisex, they could always use Tristram instead …

    • namemuststay says:

      I’m not sure that people do, really. As much as my experience gave me the impression that Tristan is a girl’s name (until I knew better), I haven’t seen many other people hell-bent or convinced they should use this on a girl. Bound to change, of course, like every non-aggressive male name has a chance of moving over to the girls…

  • namemuststay says:

    I guess I should be more considerate of those who are adamantly against unisex names. There are definitely lines that shouldn’t necessarily be crossed with such names, but those lines blur and change all the time as we know, so I guess I can’t wrap my head around hating on such great names entirely.

  • Mayba says:

    I really dislike this name
    I know a baby tristan & I really feel sorry for his future
    This name means sad & is on the most hated list & I can see why

  • farah says:

    My son is Tristan. He is loud, protective, fighter and deeply loving. Wonderful name….no sorrow here. I know a few of them and they are amazing!!!

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