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.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

rachel January 21, 2013 at 4:00 AM

FYI I can only see the first few lines of this!

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appellationmountain January 21, 2013 at 6:17 PM

Hi Rachel – This one is fixed – thank you!

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Mere Mere June 23, 2011 at 2:38 PM

Count me as another vote for the two syllable ee-SOLD pronunciation. And I’m also in the same camp as many others in liking this name a lot but not being sure if I could actually use it (whereas Guinevere would most likely be the name of our next daughter–but, alas, my husband isn’t into having more children just to give me more people to name). Funny that Tristan is such a popular name, yet this name has remained in the shadows. I think Abby’s right that this name needs a successful movie behind it, and you could see it skyrocket. (Let’s just hope they say it the right way. ;)

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Lady Gwyn June 22, 2011 at 7:02 PM

Isolde is my favorite guilty pleasure name. I don’t know if it is entirely usable, but I really love it. I would much rather use it than the lovely-but-waaaayyyyyy-overused Isabel/Isabella. I would love to meet one in my neck of the woods, it would make me want to use it more. I also like Guinevere and Morgana!

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Julie June 22, 2011 at 3:35 PM

My MIL’s friend has daughters named Sabine and Isolde. They’re German and pronounce it ee-ZAUL-dah. I think it’s very pretty and an interesting way to freshen up Isabella.

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Kathryn June 22, 2011 at 12:56 PM

My husband loves this name. There was a character named Isolde, called Izzy, on “The Road to Avonlea” show from the early 90s. My husband grew up watching it so his association with it isn’t entirely tragic. Interestingly, there was also a character named Cecily on the show and I didn’t know that it was the reason why my husband was so keen on it until after we named our daughter that!

Isolde has really grown on me the last few years and if we have another girl in the future, it could easily be her name. I definitely think it could move past the Tristan and Isolde story.

We pronounce it ee-SOLD. The three syllable pronunciation is not as appealing to me.

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Charlotte Vera June 22, 2011 at 9:58 AM

I really like Isolde but I’m not sure that I love her. I keep putting her on my list of favourite names and then taking her off again. I think when it cames to female Arthurian legend names the one I’m most likely to use is still Guinevere, but with Isolde (ih-ssold-ah/ih-ssold) as a close second. I love Morgana too, but already have an ends-in-anna. Oh, and of course there’s always Elaine. . .

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Sarah A June 22, 2011 at 1:00 PM

My grandmother’s name is Elaine and it’s my mom’s and my middle name :) My favorite female Arthurian legend name is probably Morgana, but there are so many lovely ones. I like Isolde okay, but it just makes me wonder where Tristan is.

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Lola June 22, 2011 at 8:22 AM

Isolde is one of my first and favorite literary names! I was 7 the first time I read “Tristan & Isolde” and it really made an impression on my 7 year old self: stupid kids. Same reaction I got for “Romeo & Juliet”. (although I find myself liking the remake:”Gnomeo & Juliet”) but I digress.

I’ve had Isolde in the middle before because I do indeed fear the “you sold-a what?” thing. Penelope Isolde Frances. It got nixed because Pen’s mythological and between theem, they’re heavy together. But it was ideal for me, I would have called her Pim. (P.I.M. would have been her initials). I thought it was neat-o. :)
Isolde has a neat meaning, a sad, romantic story and both a fabulous sound & look, what’s not to love? I find Isolde more usable than Juliet & Guinevere. And I’d use Guinevere but not stupid Juliet. (I will not rant about Juliet but I can’t stand her story!)

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Dellitt January 29, 2014 at 8:57 PM

See, now, I think Penelope Isolde Frances is pure perfection and all of a sudden I’m so sad you didn’t use it. I can see the difficulty in Isolde (or Iseult, which is the spelling and prn. I prefer, though I say it “ee SOOLT” or “ee SOLT”, depending on how lazy I am, more of an s than a z. I like Esyllt even more! But it seems the hardest for folks to figure out the pronunciation for). It’s the sort of thing you have to look up and wouldn’t just figure out on your own. But, I think this name is SO pretty! I personally love the Tristan and Isolde love story, even though it’s very tragic. On Isotta, I just don’t find the ‘ah’ sound as charming as the long o. But I still like it. I love these whimsical sort of names and don’t find them clunky.

But then I also like Juliet and Guinevere and find them very beautiful. They seem wearable to me. But then, they’re so much easier for people than my own name.

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Dellitt January 29, 2014 at 9:15 PM

oh, I left out the obviously more important detail. Right now my favorite name for a girl is Katherine Iseult. So I love it a lot. I would not hesitate to use it.

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Allie June 22, 2011 at 8:12 AM

The fact that people pronounce this name Ees-old-ah is going to turn me against it. Ees-old is lovely, Isoldah is clunky.

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Havoye June 22, 2011 at 8:12 AM

I think the pronunciation issues make this name unusable for me, but I do like it in the abstract. It certainly has a romantic, exotic feel. I met a woman named Isild recently and I like that quite a bit as well.

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Laura Rose June 22, 2011 at 8:09 AM

I really like Isolde. I say it closer to the Iseult pronunciation IZ-old. I knew a sister and brother whose middle names were Tristan and Isolde (her first name is Marta, and their little brother is named Connell). They pronounced it without the final -ah sound, which is probably why I do. I like a lot of names that start with I (Isabel, Imogen, Ivy), but I think Isabel is still my favourite. I’d like to meet a little Isolde, though.

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appellationmountain June 22, 2011 at 8:56 AM

Laura, I say it the same way – right or wrong! I love the sound of Marta Isolde, and Connell is cost, too. My fave I-name is, I think, Isabeau, but I do like an awful lot of them.

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photoquilty June 22, 2011 at 12:02 PM

There was a Jennifer Weiner book (I think it was her!) with a flaky character whose children were Tristan and Isolde. That’s about as bad as my friend whose son is Lance and if her second child is a daughter, she wants to use Gwenivere. Yeah. I don’t think romantic couples’ names should be re-used as siblings’ names!

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photoquilty June 22, 2011 at 4:13 AM

I love the drama and romance of the name, but find it as unwearable as Guinevere.

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waltzingmorethanmatilda June 22, 2011 at 3:33 AM

There is a 6th century stone at Castle Dor in Brittany which claims to be the tombstone of Drustan (Tristan). However it says that Tristan was Mark’s son, not his uncle. If there is any truth in the legend at all, then it’s even more scandalous, as Isolde would have been Tristan’s stepmother.

I have seen Isolde translated as being from the Ancient British Adsiltia, meaning “she who is gazed upon”.

I know an Isotta, she really suits the name.

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appellationmountain June 22, 2011 at 9:00 AM

I do like Isotta more and more. Interesting about the British link … I feel like there’s still a missing piece, but I can’t put my finger on it.

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Catherine June 22, 2011 at 2:07 AM

I babysat a little Isolde about a decade ago and I thought then that the name was due for a renaissance. I love Giselle too! :)

And Lucasta is another wildly rare name that I adore.

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