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The Blooming of Lily

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By K. M Sheard of Nook of Names

I have been musing about names which, on the surface, appear to be straightforward adoptions of English words, but are, in fact — in origin at least — entirely unrelated. The most popular name of this kind currently in use is Lily.

Lily — now almost exclusively associated with the flower (so much so that the Wikipedia entry entirely fails to mention its original roots) — actually arose in the Middle Ages as a short-form of Elizabeth — Lylie.  This quickly developed its own pet-form — Lillian/Lilian, which has been treated as a name in its own right since at least the 16th Century. It didn’t see much use, though, until the latter 19th Century, when it rapidly became one of the most popular girls’ names across the English-speaking world. And, inevitably, it was usually shortened to Lily. Lily was also very popular in its own right in the early 1900s in the UK; in the US, however — where short and pet-forms often seem to be shunned in favour of the full form — Lily remained relatively rare.

Like all names that enjoy great popularity, a time came when it started to be considered ‘over-used’, and, as people began to neglect it in favour of new darlings, it became associated with a particular generation. Thus, it came to pass that, by the 1960s, Lily and Lillian had ended up firmly in the ‘old Biddy’ category. I had an aunt of the name, and I’m afraid that even now, I struggle to associate Lily with anything other than alarming encounters with yellow dentures in a plastic mug, rows of granny pants and surgical stockings strung over a bath to dry, and a very particular kind of smell — one which didn’t bring lilies to mind..

Lily’s turning point in the US was in 1963, with an episode of the Western TV series Wagon Train, called ‘the Lily Legend’. It boosted Lily from 983rd place in the Social Security Administration‘s ranks of that year to a dizzying 912. The following year, Lily’s real saviour came along — Lily Munster in the TV sitcom The Munsters, which enjoyed its first run between 1964-66. Re-runs of this classic comedy over the following decade and a half are almost certainly responsible for keeping Lily hovering around the 1000th mark, rather than sinking still further.

Further Munster spin-offs of various kinds, flower-power in the 70s, and the love of all things Victorian — which began in the 70s and flourished in the 80s — triggered the start of Lily’s complete rehabilitation, and it has been on the up in the US since ever since. In the late 90s and early 00s, it received a further massive boost — and gained what is now probably its most famous association  — from Harry Potter, as the name of Harry’s devoted mother, Lily Potter. It can be no coincidence that it was in 2002 — following the release of the first Harry Potter film at the end of 2001 — that the name first leapt into the top 100 in the US.

There is a little irony to all of this. For, in 1960 — the year that the fictional Lily Evans Potter was born — Lily had sunk about as far as it could go in Britain; only 34 little girls in England and Wales were given the name Lily. In 1965, it had sunk to just 10. Then, in 1966 — the year the film Munster, Go Home!  was released — it shot up to 59. It wasn’t all plain sailing after that — it dithered a bit until the early 80s, when, like in the US, it really began to take off. But Harry Potter has unquestionably influenced Lily’s astronomical rise in the UK in the last ten years, as much as elsewhere. In 1996, the year before the first Harry Potter was published in the UK, Lily was 83rd — it actually had fallen two places from the previous year. In 1998, the year after publication, it had leapt to 62nd and by 2001, it was 36th. In 2002, it went up to 29th (and this is all without taking into account the different spellings, which would place the name considerably higher still).

I don’t usually go in for such in depth tracking of a name’s popularity — but Lily’s history is interesting because its reversal in fortune can be traced so clearly to two distinct products of popular culture. Yet Lily is one of those names held up as ‘traditional’ and ‘normal’, etc by those who like to knock more unusual or innovative names brought to a wider audience by some media source or other. They are entirely unaware — or conveniently forget — that Lily, like most of the names currently in vogue, is just as much a product of media influence and fashion as any other.

Lily is still a great name — not everyone has a smelly Auntie Lily to tarnish it for them — and I for one find it a bit sad that it is only a matter of time — and probably not very long from now either — that the arbiters of fashion will brand it ‘over-used’ and ‘out-dated’, and it will be promptly popped back into the reject bin for another sixty or seventy years. Ah well. Such are the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  Lily Munster and Lily Potter will still remain, keeping it ever young in fantasy, until the next generation of baby Lilys come along.

This blog appeared previously on the author’s website.

A graduate of the University of Cambridge, K. M. Sheard is the author of the encyclopedic reference Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names, and writes  Nook of Names, a blog on all things onomastic.


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About the author

Nook of Names

A graduate of the University of Cambridge, K. M. Sheard is the author of the encyclopedic reference Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names, and writes Nook of Names, a blog on all things onomastic.
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8 Responses to “The Blooming of Lily”

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hermione_vader Says:

October 4th, 2013 at 4:57 am

I had no idea that Lily started out a nickname for Elizabeth instead of just the flower name. That’s really interesting to know. People nowadays probably pick it because of the flower, though.

nanonian Says:

October 4th, 2013 at 9:29 am

I did not know this history of the name Lillian. Funny that I did have a great Aunt Lil, who I was very close with, keeping the name on my list.
She was a smart, beautiful, adventures, and spunky Great Aunt!

calypsotheoneandonly Says:

October 4th, 2013 at 9:30 am

I’ve seen a few people – not on NB – suggesting Elizabeth nn Lily, but they usually got shot down. I never really took the idea seriously myself, actually, until now. Great post!

HannieKitt Says:

October 4th, 2013 at 12:15 pm

It’s really weird, I always thought of Lily as a nn for Elizabeth more than as a plant name until fairly recently when it has become so much more popular. I know 2 Elizabeths nn Lily, one in her mid-eighties and the other in her early fifties. I also had a great great aunt who was also Elizabeth nn Lily, and who my mum’s first name was after (she goes by her middle). Apparently my mum wondered when she was younger at how she could possibly be named after her aunt Lily as her name was Elizabeth.

amyhope Says:

October 4th, 2013 at 7:37 pm

I am a child of the 80’s and fell in love with the name Lily when it was used for Mia Sara’s character in the movie Legend. I now have a little Lily of my very own.

Eliza_Beth Says:

October 5th, 2013 at 4:31 pm

I love this name, and it wasn’t until hearing in used in Harry Potter (especially the combination Lily Luna), combined with it’s use in the sitcom Modern Family, it’s much too popular for my liking. Perhaps it will eventually become a filler middle name.

rosierose Says:

October 5th, 2013 at 9:15 pm

My great grandmother from Ireland was an Elizabeth called Lily, so the connection has always been apparent to me… but it is interesting to read it so clearly spelled out!

Mischa Says:

October 6th, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Just have to say that the vintage photo of the little girl is gorgeous. I love old photographs.

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