How influenced are you by the story behind the name?
One of the big recent baby name successes has been Ophelia. After nearly 60 years off the Top 1000, it reemerged in 2015 at Number 975, then jumped to 580 last year. Though it hasn’t yet beaten its peak from the turn of the 20th century, when it entered the Top 300, Ophelia ranks a stunning Number 15 among Nameberry users for the first half of 2017, so it’s almost certain to climb even higher in the U.S..
We get the appeal. It sounds unusual but graceful, it starts with the trendy letter O and it has a sterling literary pedigree, coined by Shakespeare himself.
But here’s the thing about that Shakespeare tie: In Hamlet, Ophelia is a central tragic victim, the girl driven to madness and suicide, but she doesn’t have much presence in the play. Shakespeare created dozens of strong, fascinating, brilliant female characters — but Ophelia isn’t one of them.
Yet today’s parents have decided that Ophelia‘s many positive qualities outweigh the grimness of her story. The same goes for Pandora, Abel and Persephone, all of which have started climbing up the charts.
So that’s our question: How much do you care about a name’s backstory? Are there any names you love because they have great stories behind them? Or have you ever rejected a name because of its history?
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on August 30th, 2017 at 12:03 am
I can’t deal with Lavinia due to its Shakespearean baggage. Same with Adia and the Sarah MacLachlan thing–it’s a song about generational dysfunction, such a sad legacy for your daughter! It’s a shame because I love the sound of both (AND I have a niece named Adia–she is a lovely, smart girl).
on August 30th, 2017 at 1:55 am
It depends. If the name is unusual and mostly just known for the negative story, then no… so could never use it in real life. Being tragic isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. However, Juliet was incredibly foolish and seemed to lack any independence. Ophelia suffered from a mental breakdown at the hands of a cruel boyfriend and killed herself. Cressida was unfaithful. So even though I love the sound of these names, I could never use them… the stories don’t portray qualities I’d want my daughter to have.
on August 30th, 2017 at 2:25 am
I don’t really mind negative history or connotations, unless it’s still pretty recent. I don’t mind Ophelia/Persephone/Cressida/Cynthia/Dahlia, because the negative aspects aren’t really that well known anymore in my social circle – but I’d never use Jezebel because it’s still used negatively, even ‘ironically’.
I’d rather use a name that has a negative history than one with no history, tbh. I like the idea of searching up a name’s history, as it’s something I do a lot for my own name.
on August 30th, 2017 at 3:41 am
I love a name with a story, but it has to be the right one. As a teacher of History and English literature, the connotations have to be spot-on for me to consider using the name for my own child. I couldn’t even consider Ophelia or similar, because I wouldn’t be able to disassociate the story from the name itself. (Nor would most people in my social circle!) This is fine though, because there are still so many beautiful literary and historical names out there which don’t have such tragic or heavy legacies.
on August 30th, 2017 at 4:39 am
For me, the story is everything, but only if it is the original story of the name, or the story which brought to the name onto the global picture. This applies particularly to mythological or scriptural names, but it wouldn’t apply to names from any ordinary fiction. Shakespeare, of course, is not ordinary, especially since he invented so many of his characters’ names.
I think a name given to a child should be completely stainless, so I would not even consider Eve, a name that has become an allegory for the weighty history of human vice. A new life is a new beginning, and a name for a newborn should be completely unburdened by negative baggage.
on August 30th, 2017 at 6:04 am
I don’t yet have children but I do have dogs that are like my children. They’re names are Magik & Zazel. Magik is named after a Marvel comic character who is the ruler of the underworld. And Zazel is named after another Marvel comic character who is the fallen angel, Azazel (as in the Bible too). Both names are badass, fun to say and make me very happy. Part of living life is accepting that there isn’t positivity without negativity. Balance is key to happiness and goodness. So, I consider my name choices a contribution to balance. 😉
on August 30th, 2017 at 6:30 am
I think a reason why Ophelia has risen in popularity recently is due to it sounding similar to the name Olivia, which is extremely popular in many countries. I think for some people though, they love the idea of having a child named after a Shakespearian character, regardless of the story around the character. I wouldn’t personally choose Ophelia but I do like the names Octavia and Cressida, but that’s more to do with their meanings and the way they sound more so than them being characters from a Shakespeare plays.
on August 30th, 2017 at 6:34 am
The most important story about a name is the one you tell your child. So I would be fine choosing a name with tragic/sad literary or historic connections if the story behind it for me related to a relative or friend with admirable qualities that I wanted my child to learn from. So I might choose Ophelia if that was great grandma’s name and she was the one who held the family together and raised 7 kids alone after her husband died young. But I would be telling my daughter from an early age her ancestors story not the Shakespearean story.
On the other hand, if I have no other story related to the name, I would probably bypass names like Ophelia, Persephone, or Cressida for another one of the many names I love. On the other hand, I have no problem with name like Juliet which is far more common and I could always tell my daughter the story of Juliette Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts. Likewise if I named a daughter Elizabeth and wanted to call her Lizzie, I wouldn’t be telling her about Lizzie Borden. I would be telling her about Queen Elizabeth or other Elizabeth’s worthy of admiration.
on August 30th, 2017 at 7:05 am
I think it depends on the history or story, but in general I’m quite lenient. Pandora is my favourite name, and I’d use it in a heartbeat. The myth doesn’t bother me, and I actually quite like that there’s a link to Greek mythology altogether. Pandora is essentially the equivalent of Eve, so why should it be a big issue? Plus I don’t think it’s all that bad; Pandora was curious, which isn’t a fault or bad feature. In fact it’s the ‘all gifted’ meaning, linked to the myth, which also holds such appeal for me. She’s not an awful figure, and doesn’t put me off at all. Myths tend to have negative aspects, and they’re quite hard to avoid, but it seems a huge shame not to use the names connected with them as a result.
Usually I’m more concerned about how a name feels and comes across (or it’s personality) than the story behind it. That’s not saying the history isn’t important, as well as to what extent everyone else is aware of it, but I don’t let it hold me back. Pandora feels strong, feisty, and independent. She’s determined, passionate, and a little mischievous, and that’s what draws me in. Similarly Morgana brings up some gorgeous imagery; tempestuous seas, vast misty landscapes, with a good deal of magic and intrigue, so the Morgan le Fay/King Arthur connection isn’t so bad. Same goes for Lilith, Persephone, and Phaedra (and probably more) although for now I’ve drawn the line at Medeia and Valkyrie. And tbh I don’t see Lilith’s or Persephone’s stories as bad, it’s more others perceive them as so, and I feel that should be taken into some (but necessarily much) account.
With Ophelia it’s the opposite. I don’t dislike it because of the fate of the character in Hamlet. I dislike it because neither she nor the name appeals to me enough in image or sound. Despite the almost ethereal, whimsical image it has, I can’t shake the flimsy, and insubstantial feel and character. I don’t get any strength or oomph from the name to make me like it.
I think it’s a personal thing. How you see a name’s story might differ greatly from most, or other factors might diminish doubts about its history. I try not to let it put me off, although a good history is definitely a huge plus. Unless the name is likely to offend others, or cause major and obvious problems for the person, I go by how I see the name. Some associations might bug me too much for whatever reason, to let slide, in which case maybe the name just isn’t right. But I agree with @paw that it’s what you tell your child about their name that’s important and will stick.
on August 30th, 2017 at 8:10 am
I think it matters what stories you grew up with. I grew up with Clifford the Big Red Dog, so I could never name my daughter Jetta. But someone else may have grown up with Narnia and would use Jetta in a heartbeat over Jadis. As an English major, I’ve spent more time with Romeo and Juliet than Troilus and Cressida, so I’d prefer to use Cressida over Juliet. Adolph Hitler was more a figure in my mind than Benedict Arnold – hence, I’d use Benedict over Adolph.
As long as you like the name, you can just tell your kid that’s why it’s their name. I was perfectly content with that explanation, even though I happen to share a name with several fictional characters (good and bad), an aunt, and a variation on a great-grandfather. I was told I wasn’t named after any of them – my mom just happened to like the that name too.
on August 30th, 2017 at 8:19 am
We’re actually considering Ophelia, Cressida, Lavinia and Endymion for our next little one. I don’t want hideous namesakes but then I don’t mind tragic characters.
on August 30th, 2017 at 8:54 am
Lavinia would be on my shortlist if I were still of childbearing age, notwithstanding the Shakespearean reference, nor the quintessential “mean girl” named Lavinia in one of my favorite childhood books, A Little Princess.
I love Lavinia because it echos the sounds of Olivia and Lydia without the baggage of popularity and overuse, and because it’s a “real” name with substance and history. Plus, I am very drawn to “L” names in general. My Lavinia would write her own story.
on August 30th, 2017 at 10:02 am
When I got pregnant last year, Bannon was our top choice for a boy. We had a girl luckily because I can’t imagine using Bannon now. The prominence of Steve Bannon and all the horrible things and people he is associated with leave me with a sour taste in my mouth and as such Bannon is off our list.
Liz Kent Said
on August 30th, 2017 at 10:08 am
WHEN IS THE INVENT A BABY NAME CONTEST IT WAS AUGUST LAST YEAR
on August 30th, 2017 at 11:09 am
I have to say that the story is important to me. It’s a name association – I wouldn’t name a child after a person I didn’t like or want to honor whether fictional or not. It’s too bad because there are names I quite like the sound of like Lilith and Ophelia which I won’t use for that reason.
on August 30th, 2017 at 1:38 pm
I suspect the key to which side of the debate a person will fall on is how much exposure that person has had to the negative origins of the name. So people who study Shakespeare will probably not choose Ophelia or Cressida for their daughter, nor will they go for Caliban or Iago. But someone who just heard the name, out of context, might think these names are lovely and interesting. And this is a game you can’t really win: I bet same people have really terrible associations to the name John or Evelyn. What really matters is that the child who receives the name feels good about that name, and feels that it was given out of love for them.
One name that has recently become more popular is Evangeline, and I’m bothered by it because no one seems to know the history of this name. Yes, it’s a very pretty name and it’s sort of like the new Angelina. BUT I know it was actually invented by Henry Longfellow in 1847 for his poem of the same name about the Acadian deportation. Her story is admirable, so if you don’t mind naming your daughter after a fictional character who spent her entire adult life searching for her first love, Gabriel, then great. She’s just such an important cultural icon to present-day Acadians that to me it feels like cultural appropriation. It’s exactly the same problem as the English teacher with an Ophelia in their class: “You named your child WHAT?!”
on August 30th, 2017 at 1:44 pm
I for one, will ABSOLUTELY NOT give my future daughter any name with demonic imagery. I do not care how “feminist”ic people try to make it. Persephone and Lilith are completely off the table. And with that NO evil Jezebels either.
As a matter of fact, I was watching the Blake Lively film “Savages” and her character was named Ophelia but she shortened to O because she didn’t want that “Shakespearean basket case” image… though it did apply to her. Sis was crazy.
Whenever I meet a Deborah, I hear a positive connection to it: “oh, like the judge!” It has a positive, strong, intelligent woman story attached to it. I don’t really care for the name but at least it’s not like… “oh Deborah the demon?!”
on August 30th, 2017 at 4:53 pm
No names are untainted by stories, whether personal or fictional. Ophelia may have a tragic story, but perhaps Jessica was the mean girl at school and Lucy the corrupt politician. It’s true that some backstories are too horrible or too fresh to forget (Adolf) but I can’t think of too many that are so unusable. Personally I like Ophelia despite her story, names evolve; an original story doesn’t have to last forever or be the only story associated with it, maybe one day there will be an Ophelia who wins the Nobel prize or who runs for President and Shakespeare’s play will just be one of the many stories she carries. Ophelia could indeed inspire its wearer to become a strong woman in a way that the original was not.
Persephone is often mentioned as unusable, but I personally find her name positive, in that she represents balance and life, for death is a part of life and it would be dull indeed to have an endless spring, there is a beautiful duality represented by her story.
on August 30th, 2017 at 10:45 pm
The story for me can be everything.
At least with names like Ophelia. Maybe it’s because I’m an English teacher and writer and big reader, but to me Ophelia is simply the name of a tragic Shakespeare character, who (thank you!) is underwritten and not a real presence the way Juliet or Viola or Rosalind or Beatrice is. Juliet ends badly too, but if I liked the name enough I’d use it b/c it’s common enough that I think of other, more positive Juliets too.
I would also avoid Medea (which is too bad, b/c it’s a strong name) and Niobe and Lizzie and Aida and Imelda and Persephone.
I wouldn’t mind if a woman chose to change her name to one of these. After all, there are some cool names in there and one can imagine Persephone emerging from the underworld, whacking that snake to death. But that creative re-imagining is a lot to ask of someone else, particularly of one’s daughter and her peers.
Similarly, there are many names I wouldn’t ordinarily think twice about, but because I love the story, I would consider them. Jane for Goodall, Mirren for Helen, Sojourner for Truth, Harriet for Tubman, Gloria for Steinem, Eudora and Flannery for Welty and O’Connor, etc.
And yet to each her own. The only real gripe I have is the name chooser who has never heard Niobe’s hideous tale and wouldn’t at least stop to ponder it a minute.
on August 31st, 2017 at 12:23 am
Opps. It’s been a long day. I meant to say Eurydice rather than Persephone.
on August 31st, 2017 at 6:23 am
I would never use Delilah. The L_L sound is attractive, but the biblical namesake was not. She was whiny, deceptive, traitorous. Nope. There are plenty of other L_L names to choose from.
on August 31st, 2017 at 3:41 pm
I think it depends upon not just my own correlation, but also the general correlation society has. I’m an avid Shakespeare buff, but names like Ophelia still appeal to me; because they’re not so much in the public eye, not everyone associates them with Shakespeare. Ophelia is doubtlessly a well-known product of Shakespeare, but the name is still more “Oh, that’s a Shakespeare character” than “Oh, that’s that girl whose boyfriend was an awful hormonal teenager who drove her to madness so that she drowned herself.”
Contrarily, characters that are more in the eye of general American society (rather than just pretentious actor-wannabes who enjoy McSweeney’s and off-Broadway Shakespeare plays restaged in a modern setting) are much more of a no for me. I went to school with a kid named Alex Forrest – who was born more than a decade after Fatal Attraction came out – and every time I saw his name I would just think, dude, did your parents intentionally name you after a fictional psychopathic ex-lover?
Sometimes, however, characters that aren’t so much in the public eye are so screwed up that I could never touch them. Ophelia’s story is horrible, but it’s not her who is the disgusting person. But I saw someone say one of their top names was Tilden, and oh, God. Whoever that was: Make sure your kid NEVER learns about Sam Shepard’s The Buried Child. NEVER. I met a girl whose name was spelled Halie and wanted to throw up… Don’t read Buried Child!!
on September 1st, 2017 at 6:53 pm
If and when I someday have a child, I probably won’t name my child after a song. Why, you may ask?
I was named after Caroline Kennedy, because my parents both grew up hearing “Sweet Caroline”. It’s even the theme song for multiple local sports teams. Sounds like a great thing to name your daughter, right?
It wasn’t great. My father tried to teach me absolutely everything about JFK, because that was his favorite president, and me being named after his daughter meant I OBVIOUSLY had to be an expert. My parents also made CD’s that played “Sweet Caroline” for two hours straight, and those CD’s would be played anytime we were in the car for extended periods of time. I couldn’t go to baseball games with my friends and family, because if I did, the second “Sweet Caroline” started playing in the stadium, I would be surrounded by people chanting the lyrics in my face. Even my classmates would play it at school and on the bus just to annoy me.
I would never name my child after a song, because then he/she would hear it so many times in their childhood alone that they would hate that song- and perhaps, by extension, their name- from a very young age.
on September 3rd, 2017 at 2:24 pm
I have to say, I’m not really influenced by the story. I’ll read something, and whether the character is good or bad, I’ll look at the name, say it a few times, and see how it feels. I’m a writer, and I tend to give my antagonists names I don’t like, but they may be someone else’s favorite names. And that’s their opinion. For instance, I hate the name Caleb, so I gave it to an antagonist. So many other people love Caleb, and that won’t change just because of my book. I think I’m more influenced by real people who have done serious damage in real life (Jezebel, Delilah, Adolf, though, Adolf is just an awful name anyways, I think. It sounds like a cough or a big dumb brute). I think because I’m a writer, I understand that the name doesn’t make the person, each person makes the name, over and over again, each time its used.
on September 10th, 2017 at 7:11 am
I have absolutely no problem with dames like Ophelia, Juliet, etc that have sad literary stories.
The only back stories that ruin a name for me are truly treacherous people, along the lines of Adolf. That ruins a name for me forever.
I love reading and do make the connections to the name. But there’s so much more to it. And honestly I’m sure every name out there could find a negative story to it somehow if we tried.
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