Vintage Name or Nickname?

12 girls' names that give you a choice

by Pamela Redmond
This charming group of vintage baby names for girls all originated as short forms and yet can stand on their own. That means you can use them as nicknames for more formal names or put them proudly on the birth certificate. Let’s consider the options


Belle and her near-identical twin Bella have risen in recent years on the strength of Number 1 name Isabella as well as via the Twilight franchise, whose heroine goes by Bella. Bella is the far more popular of the two, ranking in the US Top 50, while Belle stands at Number 859. Belle, the name of the heroine of Beauty and the Beast, was a Top 100 name in the 1880s. Belle references its French meaning “beautiful” while the Bell turns it into a word name. Belle may be short for not only Isabelle but Annabelle or any other –belle ending name along with the rising Bellamy.


Ella stands all on her own at Number 15 in the US – and ranks in the Top 100 in several European countries – exactly where she stood in 1882. While Ella has a long history as a popular free-standing name, she can also be short for a range of names that begin or end with the Ella sound: Eleanor and Elena, for instance, along with Gabriella and Rafaella.


Emmy feels more like a flat-out nickname than some of the other choices here, but it’s been rising through the ranks as a full name for the past handful of years. Before 2008, it appeared on the Top 1000 only once, in 1885. Its growing popularity is undoubtedly related to the longtime Top 10 standing of both Emma and Emily, either of which it could be short for. Emmy might also be a diminutive of Emilia or Emmeline and cousins. It’s a Top 100 name in France and also famous as the name of television’s Emmy Awards. Variation Emme is the name of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony’s daughter.


Etta is a rising star of recent years, thanks to the revival of At Last singer Etta James. Even in the 1880s, Etta was more popular on its own than any of the names it might be short for: Henrietta, Loretta, Rosetta, Marietta.


Kate is about half as popular in the US as mother name Katherine. Kate stands at Number 285 and is by far the most popular and fashionable short form of Katherine, not to mention Catherine, Kathryn, and all the Katelyns. It’s fascinating how fast the name Kate has stuck to the Duchess of Cambridge, despite her insistence on being known as Catherine. Artist Kate Greenaway was known for her gently old-fashioned illustrations.


After a half-century hiatus, Mae is on the way up, nearly making the Top 500. A Top 100 name from 1880 until 1920, Mae and May were once common short forms of Mary. Today, they’re more commonly used on their own and many people are unconscious that there ever was a Mary connection. (Trivia note: In 1880 May was the more popular form, but today it’s Mae. May still lies outside the Top 1000.)


Maisie is one of the superstars of today’s vintage baby names that can also be nicknames. A Top 50 name in England, Scotland and Wales, Maisie ranks just inside the US Top 500. It has a lot of style currency, thanks partly to Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams. Well-known from the days of Henry James and Rudyard Kipling, Maisie originated as a Scottish short form of Margaret. Today it might be short for Esme or Melissa, but it’s more likely to stand on its own.


Molly is one of the oldest nickname-names, dating from the Middle Ages. Many people don’t even realize it originated as a short form of Mary – as did cousin name Polly. Molly is identified with both the Irish and Jewish cultures in the US at the turn of the last century. Literature is also rife with notable heroines named Molly. The name is still popular in the US, lying just outside the Top 150.


Nell is one of those sweet vintage nickname-names we really thought would take off in the past few decades, except it didn’t. All the better for you. Nell remains a stylish yet distinguished choice, standing on its own or as Nellie. Nell might also be short for Eleanor, Helen or Helena, or even Penelope.


Who remembers that Sadie started out as a short form of Sarah? (So, FYI, did Sally.) Sadie peaked in 2014 but still stands in the Top 100. She’s been in the Top 1000 throughout history except for a brief hiatus in the 1960s and 70s.


Tess fell off the Top 1000 a handful of years ago, but for fans of this gentle vintage name, that might be a good thing. Tessa is far more popular, in the Top 250. Both originated as short forms of Teresa in all its variations, but are far more stylish.


Thea is a mythological name in its own right but it also can be short for Theodora or Dorothea. It might also work as a short form of Anthea, Althea, Galathea, Timothea — any Thea-related name. Thea is heading straight for the top, now at its highest point ever in the US. The name hits the Top 100 in Norway, New Zealand, Scotland, Germany, England, and Sweden.

Pamela Redmond is the cocreator of Nameberry and coauthor of ten bestselling books about names, including The Baby Name Bible and Beyond Jennifer & Jason.

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14 Responses to “Vintage Name or Nickname?”

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jtucker Says:

April 23rd, 2015 at 11:05 pm

Love Belle, Mae, Ella and Maisie.

Other nickname “vintage” names that I love are Sally and Elsie.

Alaina Says:

April 24th, 2015 at 1:35 am

I like Mae, Sadie, Maisie, and Tessa (which I think is more stylish than Tess).

SimoneKadele Says:

April 24th, 2015 at 8:55 am

I love Etta, Molly, and Tess! I would use Etta as a nickname for Henrietta.

GreenEyes375 Says:

April 24th, 2015 at 10:43 am

I have to say I love Thea and Nell! They are both beautiful names (and Nellie is the nn my great-grandma gave me). The other names are pretty as well, though besides Belle and Etta I really don’t care for them.

Bobcat108 Says:

April 24th, 2015 at 10:54 am

I’m in the camp that prefers to give a longer, more formal name for the birth certificate, but use a nn. So I wouldn’t use any of these as legal names. Of the names here, I’d only use Tess & Nell, but I’m not fond of most of the names that Tess & Nell would work as a nn for…Treasa & Penelope would be the only options for me.

W/regard to Nell never taking off in popularity, I wonder if that has to do w/the enduring negative image of Nellie Olson from Little House on the Prairie?

My paternal grandmother was named after her two grandmothers: Nellie Augusta. She hated both her names. My brother & his wife chose Nell as a mn for one of my nieces to honor Grandma…if she had still been alive she would have told them to pick something else! : )

amf0224 Says:

April 24th, 2015 at 7:03 pm

I love so many of these names! Belle, Mae, Maisie, Nell, Thea, and especially Ella are my favorite although all are adorable!

axel Says:

April 25th, 2015 at 3:50 am

We named our daughter Tessa. We loved the name but spent ages agonising over whether to give her the name Theresa, even though we didn’t really like it, because we felt we should give her a formal long name.

So glad we didn’t! Still love Tessa and use Tess as nickname.

Jamesina66 Says:

April 25th, 2015 at 5:36 am

All these names are lovely, and for me, much preferred over the prevalent androgynous names that have been popular for so long. I particularly love Ella, because I love Ella Fitzgerald. Etta has a bit more spunk than Ella, probably the Etta James influence, but nice that both Ella and Etta reference great singers, good choices for jazz/blues lovers. My step-grandmother’s middle name was DeEtta, which I thought was very unique and feminine. Thea is a favorite, but I would use it as a nickname for Althea.

ThistleThorn Says:

April 25th, 2015 at 1:54 pm

I love all of these names. Theresa with the nn Tess is one of my favorite names. Tess just seems to short as a full name and I’m not a fan of Tessa.

JH Says:

April 25th, 2015 at 9:45 pm

Two of my best friends are Molly (whose real name is Mary) and Nellie (and we’re all hovering around 30). So, I guess their parents were ahead of the trends, haha. I also grew up knowing a family who has a Nell and a Tess. I also had friends in high school named Sally and Ella. My husband’s grandmother’s middle name was Mae and it’s one I really like for a middle name if we ever have a daughter. These are all fun names!

findemaxa13 Says:

April 26th, 2015 at 5:16 pm

I love Tess, although I prefer it as a NN for Theresa. (Also a big fan of the more retro, French Therese). I also quite like Mae and Ella.

Volleybalqueen Says:

April 27th, 2015 at 4:41 pm

A longer name for Emmy could be Emmylou (that’s my name)

wrenofgrace Says:

July 9th, 2015 at 6:00 am

I am so pleased to see my daughter’s name Tess on the list. I have always loved it for its vintage charm. And pleased that another vintage sister Penelope nn Posy is on her way now, due in Feb! 🙂 I love all these illustrations. Thank you, Nameberry for introducing me to Kate Greenaway. I will have to start a collection for Posy.

Blondiebuddy66 Says:

September 1st, 2015 at 1:20 pm

My daughter’s name is Nellie Therese. She is almost 19, and she loves her name!
People she meets love it, too. It’s uncommon and very feminine, however when she introduces herself they never quite get it right. They say, “Millie?” Ugh.

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