Baby Name of the Day: Isolde

by appellationmountain on June 22, 2011

Tristan and Isolde Tristan and Isolde by Herbert Draper; Image via Wikipedia

She’s been a tragic heroine for centuries, and yet her name sounds surprisingly modern.

Thanks to Sadie for suggesting Isolde as our Baby Name of the Day.

A bad ending doesn’t doom a name. Look at fair Juliet, currently leaping up the US rankings to #285 in 2010, her vaguely French vibe meeting a generation of moms who remember Claire Danes wearing angel wings and kissing a very young, pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio.

Isolde is also trapped in an affair fated to bring unhappiness to all, but in many accounts it is of her own making. The story generally goes something like this: Isolde is a princess, betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall. The king dispatches his nephew Tristan to retrieve his bride. All’s well so far. But Isolde ends up with a love potion in her possession, and somehow, she and Tristan drink it down together. Even though Tristan dutifully delivers the princess and she obediently promises to love, honor, and obey her intended groom, the die is cast. The pair conduct a scandalous affair, which Mark ultimately discovers.

In some accounts, Isolde is said to have tricked Tristan into drinking the potion with her; in others, their actions are accidental. Either way, their story ends unhappily. It was probably first written down during the twelfth century by a Norman poet named BĂ©roul and a French poet called Thomas; but like many a legend, it is almost certainly much older.

There are other Isoldes in myth and literature, but she’s the one that we remember, especially because her story has been told and re-told, time and time again:

  • Tennyson was just one of the nineteenth century poets to revisit the tragedy;
  • Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde remains one of the composer’s most important works;
  • Film adaptations began a silent movie in 1909 and have continued, at least one most decades, right into our era;
  • The most recent movie was 2006, with James Franco as Tristan and Sophia Myles as the leading lady. In this version, there is deception on the part of both lovers, but there is also plenty of room to forgive them both.

Maybe if the movie had been a hit, Isolde might have attracted more attention. Instead, she’s never appeared in the US Top 1000, even as the similar-sounding Isabella stands at the very top of the popularity charts.

As for the origins of her name, just like Tristan, there’s no consensus. Some say Celtic, others say Germanic. Variants abound: Eseld in Cornwall, Esyllt in Wales. You’ll find Isot, Iseult and Yseult, too. Isolde is no modern innovation, however; she appears as early as the 13th century. Isotta is Italian – and also the name of Isabella Rosellini’s twin sister. Isolda also surfaces in romance languages.

That last one – Isolda – is probably the closest to a phonetic pronunciation of the name. While Iseult would probably reduce her sound to just two syllables and the French say ee ZOLD, the consensus appears to be that Isolde’s final -e is not silent. Some favor more of a z-sound: ih ZOL dah, while others prefer a softer s-sound: ih SOL dah.

A little Isolde would probably endure some teasing – Isolde what? Did you get a good price for it? – but considering how very in-step she is with current trends, I suspect this rarity that would fit in with other wildly romantic, yet restrained choices, from Juliet to Giselle.

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