Baby Name of the Day: Elaine

by appellationmountain on December 5, 2011

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e54 by TooFarNorth via Flickr

She’s an Arthurian appellation big with Baby Boomers, but she could feel surprisingly current today.

Thanks to Sarah for suggesting Elaine as our Baby Name of the Day.

Elaine was a rising star in the 1920s, peaked in the 1940s, and stayed in the Top 100 through 1957. Today she’s fallen to a chilly #799.

She’s usually explained as a French version of Helen, Some theorize other origins, like elain, the Welsh word for fawn.

She appears in several Arthurian tales, including:

  • The Lady of Shallott is probably the most famous thanks to a Tennyson poem.
  • Speaking of Lancelot, his mom was also named Elaine.
  • Then there’s an Elaine that does catch the eye of Lancelot. Together, they are the parents of Sir Galahad.
  • King Arthur has a half-sister called Elaine.
  • That half-sister passed the name on to her daughter, Elaine the Younger.

There are a few others, too. Depending on which telling you’re reading, some of these characters might answer to slightly different names. But overall, there is no denying that Elaine comes to us from myth and legend.

Her big moment came from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. The poet had touched on her story earlier, It goes something like this: Lancelot and Guinevere have fallen in love, but she’s the queen, married to King Arthur and she tells him they have to be cautious. Determined to impress his beloved, Lancelot shows up at a tournament disguised as the Lord of Astolat. Astolat isn’t there, but his daughter is, and she falls head over heels for the imposter. He’s taken, of course, and Elaine dies of heartbreak. Her dying note is read aloud at court, reducing everyone to tears.

The tragic heroine’s name is barely present in the US Top 1000 before 1889. Idylls was published between 1856 and 1885, and by the twentieth century, Elaine was on her way up, boosted by:

  • 1914’s The Exploits of Elaine, a tale of a young woman who hunts down the man who murdered her father. It was a follow-up to the successful Perils of Pauline.
  • In the 1944 hit movie Arsenic and Old Lace, Cary Grant’s character is planning to elope with the girl next door, only his sweetly murderous aunts keep getting in the way of his romance with the lovely Elaine Harper. The movie was based on an equally successful play, again, with the sweetheart answering to Elaine.
  • JD Salinger published a short story titled “Elaine” in 1945. Salinger was quite the namer – don’t forget he used Esme decades before Stephenie Meyer. Salinger’s Elaine is growing up in the Bronx, but seems unfazed by the sordidness of her surroundings.
  • We all know the famous scene from The Graduate between young Ben and the original cougar, Mrs. Robinson. But have you seen the ending? Ben runs off with the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine.
  • Remember the Billy Joel song “Big Shot” from 1978? He referred to Elaine’s, a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, fashionable from the 1960s into recent years, a place where you might spot Woody Allen or other luminaries. Elaine Kaufman was the woman behind the eatery.

Today’s generation of parents probably think of Lady Elaine on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, or more likely, Elaine from Seinfeld.

None of this makes Elaine prime for a comeback, but here’s something that does: the rise of the short form Laney or Lainey or Lainie. Some parents are opting for Delaney, or Alaina, or Elaina, but there’s a simple elegance to Elaine. If you’re looking for a trend-proof name that your child will still enjoy wearing, Elaine might be exactly the thing.

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