Greek for “pure” – it’s related to the word catharis – the name’s fame spread via the early saint and martyr, Catherine of Alexandria, who was tortured on a spiked wheel. Crusaders brought her name back to England, where it’s been common since the Middle Ages in many different spellings. Other noted early bearers include Saint Catherine of Siena, Catherine de Medici, and three of the wives of King Henry VIII. (Interestingly, some reputable sources list the spelling of the name of all three to be Catherine, while other sources list them as Catherine of Aragon, Kathryn Howard, and Katherine Parr. According to her Wikipedia entry, Catherine of Aragon signed her own name variously as “Katherine“, “Katherina“, “Katharine” and sometimes “Katharina“. Her first husband called her Katerine and her daughter Kateryn.)
Catherine is often noted as the French spelling of the name with Katherine the English form, but in modern times in the UK and the US, the two spellings are equally proper though not equally in style. These days, Catherine seems like the more gently old-fashioned, even quaint, form of the name, with Katherine the more modern. A hundred years ago, Catherine was twice as popular as the K form of the name. The Katharine spelling is pegged to Ms. Hepburn, and many parents choose the double-a form as an homage to the great actress. The more streamlined Kathryn, while the more modern spelling of the name, does not feel stylish or contemporary. These days, many Katherines are called simply Kate – or, thanks to Ms. Blanchett, Cate. Or even, following the Kaitlyn craze of the past few decades Kait or Cait. Katie is #128 and Kate is #139 on the most recent Social Security List, ahead of Catherine, at 149 and Kathryn, at 190. Katherine is the highest #45, Kathryn is hanging on at 190, but the Katharine spelling has recently fallen off the Top 1000. That’s north of 10,000 Katherines of all spellings, and another 5000 Katies and Kates, which combined make it a Top 10 name. Kaitlyn, meanwhile, is the most popular spelling of that Irish variation of the name, at #53, with Katelyn at #80, the original Caitlin at 235, Katelynn at 295, Kaitlin at 471 and Kaitlynn at 541.
While these names are off their highs of a decade ago, added together all forms of the name are still given to about 13,000 baby girls a year, which puts it firmly in the Top 10. And add all the Katherines, Kaitlyns, and Kates together and you get a number that’s more than 50% higher than the number of girls called Emma, the top name. That’s a lot of little girls with variations of this name, which is why it sometimes seems as if every other little girl you meet is called Kate.
Kate is by far the preferred short form of the name these days. A generation or two ago, it was Kathy/Cathy. In 1900, Kate, Katie, Kitty, Kattie, Kittie, and Kay were all on the Top 100, in that order, but nickname Cathy/Kathy was not. And at the end of the 18th century, short form Kitty was ubiquitous. The 1900 list also included some now-defunct spelling variations, such as Kathrine, Katheryn, Kathryne, Catharine, Cathrine, and Cathryn.
The Irish form Kathleen, so popular in mid-century America, has lost is style edge now, though any day it might be considered so far out it’s in. The hurricane pretty much blew the variation Katrina out of consideration, though the Gaelic Caitriona, pronounced the same, still has possibilities. International variations that may appeal include the Irish Caitria, the Spanish Catalina, the Italian or Portuguese Catarina, the Russian Ekaterina or Katya. Forms that are a bit further afield (and this may be a good thing) include the Breton Katell, the Norwegian Kaia, the Polish Kasia, the Czech Katica, the Finnish Katri, and the Danish Trine.
One of the most independent spin-offs of Katherine is the Danish Karen, which superseded the original for a while. Well-known bearers of the name abound, and include, along with those already mentioned, Russian empress Catherine the Great; actresses Katherine Heigl, Catherine Deneuve, and Katie Holmes; actresses Kate Hudson, Beckinsale, and Winslet; supermodel Kate Moss; possible future queen of England Kate Middleton; comedian Kathy Griffin; writers Katherine Mansfield and Katherine (born Callie) Anne Porter; and literary heroine Cathy of Wuthering Heights.