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.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

k October 22, 2012 at 8:20 AM

I was reading your esme post which brought me to this one. I live Elaine because its similar to my grandmothers name (Aileen) and love the Seinfeld charactor. I just suggested it to my husband and he said he likes it too ( miracle). But do we go hope Elaine or Elaine hope ? Not quite pregnant yet but when I am I now feel prepared well with girls names

Btw, love your site. Reading it or facebook page at the end of my day is my relaxing activity !

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Natosha December 19, 2011 at 2:24 PM

My parents’ names are Richard and Elaine … so I grew up loving Arthurian legends and quite obsessed with names in general. I dislike “cutesy” names like Delainey or anything that ends is “ie” or “ey”, generally speaking.

Elaine has a timeless feel to it and it will definitely work it’s way into a future daughter’s name.

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Eponymia December 8, 2011 at 12:03 AM

Great post — I’ve always liked the sound of Elaine, but it’s one of those names that totally depends on the combination. It can sound fresh and classic, or dated and forgettable, so easily. Salinger WAS quite the namer, wasn’t he? So fun that you mentioned him — I love writers who are obviously closet-onomasts.

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Lou @ Mer de noms December 7, 2011 at 5:25 PM

I have an Auntie with the name Elaine, and I’m not totally in love with it as a name. My Auntie certainly had a flair for names, though, with daughters named Ciara and Teagan – born way back in the 80s!

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dreadedjaws December 6, 2011 at 10:52 PM

I like Elaine, although, I think I’d be more inclined to go with a variant. Elena with Lena or Lennie as a nn, perhaps? Actually, I am kind of surprised it isn’t swept into the Ella-esque naming wave. I know one Yelena, Russian, mid-30s. Somehow, this feels less dated and more on the eve of ‘ready for revival’ to me.

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Rosy December 6, 2011 at 5:44 PM

I think Elaine’s actually quite pretty. It’s a bit dated, yeah, but I think the Arthurian connection really gives it a romantic, lasting feel. I definitely prefer Helena, though.

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Charlotte Vera December 6, 2011 at 1:52 AM

I love Elaine, she has so many things going for her: beauty, elegance, a lilting sound, and the list just goes on. If it weren’t for the fact that, should we have another daughter, I want to incorporate my grandmother’s name (which also begins with “El”), I’d strongly consider using Elaine as a middle.

One of the reasons I love Elaine is her tie to the Lady of Shalott. Watching Anne of Green Gables growing up I couldn’t help but think that Shalott sounded a lot like my own name, especially the way most of my friends in India pronounced it (i.e. dropping the r). In a weird way, using Elaine be like naming a child after both myself and the beloved Montgomery heroine.

I wasn’t much surrounded by pop culture growing up, so I’m unfamiliar with most of the more recent references (as I was unfamiliar with the recent pop culture Rosanna references until AFTER I agreed to name our daughter after my husband’s mother! Oh well).

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KO December 6, 2011 at 1:23 AM

I was just stopping by to request Ismeria as a possible NOTD.

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Sarah A December 6, 2011 at 12:42 AM

My grandmother is Elaine and it is both my and my mother’s middle names. I love its tailored simplicity and “simple elegance”. I think Elaine is one that stands out but still fits in, especially amongst peers like Evelyn, Charlotte, and Claire.

If we have a daughter in the future Elaine is sure to be her first or middle name.

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Julie December 5, 2011 at 2:50 PM

Elaine brings to mind Anne of Green Gables, when Anne Shirley acts out Tennyson’s poem as she floats down the river in the leaky rowboat.

Another notable Elaine is Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. She’s been an actress for over 60 years, but she’s probably most recognizable for guest starring on practically everything… most recently on 30 Rock as as Jack Donaghy’s mother.

My niece, Delaney, was named after an Elaine on her Mother’s side of the family. I know I’m a bit of a contrarian, but I’d prefer to meet a little Elaine over many of the fanciful concoctions that have come out lately (Alayna, Alaya, Adelaine…)

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Zeffy December 5, 2011 at 12:16 PM

Elaine is a sweet name, especially if they use Laney or Lainey. But maybe it’s slightly dated. I know 3 Elaines and they’re in the 50s, so when I think of an Elaine I think of middle aged women.

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Elea December 5, 2011 at 11:51 AM

I would definitely use Elaine, but it’s my mum’s name — so I’m biased ;) I love its literary origins and, as mum is half Welsh, she likes its Welshness.

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SkyeRhyly December 5, 2011 at 9:29 AM

Never really liked Elaine. I prefer Elena.

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i.heart.nerds December 5, 2011 at 8:28 AM

I love Helene so Elaine just sounds boring to my ears.

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Catherine December 5, 2011 at 2:10 AM

I love Elaine so I’m happy to see you profile it! :D

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