Menu

Name Sage: Defining Classic Girl Names

Name Sage: Defining Classic Girl Names

Julie writes:

We have two boys, Benjamin John, nn Benji, and William Henry, nn Will. Our third on the way is a girl and we are really struggling with her name.

For our boys, we quickly settled on classic names and used family names for the middles. There doesn’t seem to be the same size pool of classic girl names. We’d like to find a longer name with cute nickname.

My husband likes Elizabeth, nn Elle, and while it fits our style I’m not sold.

I love Penelope, nn Nell, but our last name is a mouthful that starts with a P, alliterative names are out.

Ideally, we’d find a timeless name for our daughter, just like our boys’ names aren’t tied to a specific era.

For her middle, we will go with another family name, likely Marian, after my grandma.

We would love to hear your suggestions!

The Name Sage replies:

It seems like “classic” should be defined the same regardless of gender, right? But it doesn’t work out that way.

The number of boys’ names that have never left the US Top 100 is significant – there’s William, of course. Thomas, David, Daniel, James, John, Joseph, Charles, Andrew, and Michael make the list, too. Other names – like Henry, Theodore, and Benjamin – have ranked higher or lower over the decades, but still feel plenty traditional, and currently appear in the Top 25.

On the girls’ side, though? There’s your husband’s favorite, Elizabeth. Caroline and Katherine come close, but both have left the Top 100 from time to time.

Even the names of queens and saints, the most classic and enduring of choices, tend to trend in and out of favor.

Despite that challenge, plenty of girls’ names do feel classic, even timeless. Chances are you’ve met an 80-something Ruth and a school-aged one, a Rose that remembers watching the moon landing and another who can't remember life before the iPhone.  

In other words, it’s not that there are fewer classic girl names. There probably are more! But the bigger the list, the harder it is to choose.

Let’s look at some names that fit in the same category as evergreen William, Benjamin, and Elizabeth, but feel just a little more like the sparkling Penelope.

Oh, and I’ll do my best to preserve that “el” sound you both love, too.

A SISTER FOR WILL AND BENJI

ADELE

Spare and tailored Adele comes with a great meaning: noble. It brings to mind the singer, but it’s also a slightly different take on wildly popular Adeline. Shorten it to Elle or Della and sidestep the many girls answering to Addie.

ELEANOR

A rock-solid choice for a daughter, Eleanor is a name equally serious and romantic. Or spell it Elinor for a slightly more Austen vibe. The best part? It’s every bit as traditional as Elizabeth, but you could easily use the nickname Nell for this name, too.

ELIZA

Sometimes tweaking a name changes everything. Drop the final syllable from Elizabeth, and you’ll have Eliza. It’s every bit as vintage and storied, but bright and spirited, too.

ELOISE

A vintage charmer like Penelope, Eloise seems to hit the same familiar-but-stylish mark. It’s easy to shorten Eloise to Elle, though Lola is another option to consider.

ESTELLA

From Great Expectations to Cruella, Estella features in fiction aplenty. It’s relatively rare now, but back in the early 1900s, the name regularly ranked in the US Top 200. Like Stella and Esther, it means star.   

HELEN

Along with Helena, Helen traditionally shortens to Nell. This is a great example of how classic names for girls can be missed. Helen hasn’t ranked in the US Top 100 since the 1950s, but you’d never dismiss it as trendy, and it’s not dated, either. It’s simply overlooked – which could make it the perfect choice for Will and Benji’s sister.

MARIAN

I know Marian is your preferred middle name, honoring your grandmother. But maybe it deserves a promotion? The nickname potential is great – Mari, Mimi, Mae – and it’s another classic, like Helen or Adele, that we just don’t hear that often.

MARIANA

Would you be willing to elaborate Marian? Flowing and romantic Mariana checks the classic box, but it also fits in with names like Isabella and Olivia. Another potential bonus? Mariana lends itself to the sweet nickname Mia.

MARIEL

Or maybe you could blend Marian with that lovely –el sound and name your daughter Mariel? Marielle and Maribel/Maribelle are other possibilities. It’s a pretty, unexpected sound that combines classic style with a nod to your grandmother.

My favorite option is moving Marian from the middle spot to the first. It satisfies your longing for a true classic name for your daughter, and the nickname potential is considerable.

But if holding on to the Elle/Nell sound matters more, then I think Eleanor seems like a great compromise. It’s nearly as classic as Elizabeth, but comes with your favorite nickname, Nell, built right in.

What would you suggest to Julie? Are there other classic names that shorten to Nell/Elle that belong on this list? Please visit the forums to share your ideas!

About the Author

Abby Sandel

Abby Sandel is nameberry's Senior Editor and resident Name Sage. Look for her baby name news round-ups every Monday, and her Name Sage columns on Wednesdays. Abby is the creator of the baby name blog Appellation Mountain and mom to Alex and Clio. For a chance to have your questions answered, contact Abby at namesage@nameberry.com.