Baby Name of the Day: Penelope

Penelope (2008 film)

Image via Wikipedia

A modern-day fairytale about a girl with a pig’s snout seems like strange inspiration for a baby name, but the Christina Ricci film is only one piece of this name’s rise in popularity.

Our Baby Name of the Day is Penelope.

2006’s Penelope wasn’t exactly a smash hit for Ricci, rookie producer Reese Witherspoon and leading man James McAvoy, but the film’s otherworldly, fable-in-real-life vibe attracted a following.

The film masqueraded as a love story, but Penelope didn’t just fall for a handsome fella; she went on a voyage of self-discovery: Penelope learns to love her schnoz, and her prince loves her not in spite of the nose, but because of the courage she shows in facing up to her fate.

The original Penelope was the faithful wife of Odysseus. Despite his twenty years’ globe-spanning adventures, she remained constant – and clever. When suitors gathered to win her hand, she put them off by claiming she’d wed only when she’d completed a piece of weaving. The trick? Miss P. was unweaving the work completed by day every night. All ends well – she put off her would-be pursuers until Odysseus could return home and prove his identity.

She’d fallen out of favor, barely appearing in the US Top 1000 in the nineteenth century. And yet the name has spent much of its long history in obscurity, at least in the US. In 1880, Penelope ranked just #917. (That makes her as common as the seldom-heard Bulah, Dosha, or Icy.)

The name dipped in and out of the Top 1000 until 1935, when she began a steady climb, peaking at #272 in 1947 – the same year Gail Russel’s Penelope Worth nursed John Wayne’s Quirt Evans back to health – and to the side of goodness and right – in the Western Angel and the Badman.

Other twentieth century Penelopes include:

  • In 1909, W. Somerset Maugham’s play Penelope;
  • In 1966, Natalie Wood played another big screen Penelope, a banker’s wife who robs banks;
  • The nameless cat pursued by Pepe Le Pew in the Looney Tunes cartoons? She’s actually Penelope, too.

There’s also Penelope Pitstop, a member of the Hanna-Barbera Wacky Races gang who went on to get her own show in 1969. Miss Pitstop was part damsel-in-distress, part-Jane Bond, as she usually did her own rescuing.

Penelope peaked at #267 in 1942, but fell out of favor, leaving the rankings by 1976. Then came 2001. Spanish actress Penelope Cruz gained fame stateside around the same year, appearing in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Blow and Vanilla Sky. Now that’s she won an Academy Award (for her turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), the name has true silver screen luster.

Since 2001, the name has leap-frogged up the charts, gaining nearly 500 places to land at #481 in 2006 and reach an all-time high of #252 in 2009. It’s been a quick climb, reminiscent of Isabella or Madeline.

The name has much to recommend it. It is undeniably classic, with a long history of use. Like Madeline, it is feminine without being frilly. And it shortens to the peppy Penny, or the elegant Nell. You could also derive Polly from Penelope, adding another nickname option to the list.

If you’re looking for a name for your daughter, Penelope is a strong choice. But proceed with caution – it might also be an increasingly popular one.

This post originally ran on March 9, 2008. A substantial revision was posted in August 2010 as part of rerun week. A special thanks to Fran for suggesting this one!


  1. says

    There was a Penelope on “Lost” – she went by Penny – and she was British.

    I love the name – it’s one that suits my tastes very much – lots of nn possibilities – somewhat of a British flair (especially if one goes with Poppy for the nn) and I could even see it with my other kids’ names…. not planning to have a third, but I’d put Penelope on my mental “just in case” list.

  2. Adrian says

    Abby, thanks for directing me to your write-up on Penelope! There’s also Penelope Garcia, the tech analyst on the TV show “Criminal Minds.” That’s probably also contributed to the name’s burst in popularity.

    I’m pretty set on using this as a middle name if we have a girl — one, because I fear it’s becoming too popular as a first name, and two, because Penelope is such a pretty name that I’d hate to have it shortened to Penny or Nell.

  3. Julie says

    My Grandma was named Nellie, so I love Penelope nicknamed Nell. My only concern are the way some people seem to insist on rhyming Penelope, with Cantaloupe.

    Lovely name, I just hope it doesn’t become too popular (but popular enough for the pronunciation to become more common knowledge.)

  4. Kylie says

    Penelope – nn Penny – is my favorite girls name, has been for several years. I really hope she doesn’t climb TOO high…:(

  5. fran says

    abby, poppy is a top thirty name here in england so it’s a lot more popular than in the states. there’s 2 in neve’s school year (and it’s not a huge school!) so you can understand my hesitation. unfortunetly i’m really not that keen on any of the other nicknames despite there being quite a few!

    • appellationmountain says

      Oh that’s right … I forget you live in the Land of Better Names. It does make choosing more difficult. Here, Poppy would be a stand out. :)

  6. Nicole says

    Penelope has always been a top choice for my husband and I. I absolutly love it! Love the greek myth reference and the modern day fairy tale reference. I would also fall guilty to liking it because there is a minor character in Harry Potter books named Penelope Clearwater (nickname Penny). She was a Weasley brother’s love interest.

    The only downside to Penelope is the 4 syllable name. I am mexican and it is traditional to have 2 middle names. I have 2 middle names and will be giving our daughter or daughters 2 middle names.. so i think a 4 syllable first name may be too much for my little baby to handle. But all that to say that I still havent kicked it off the list because it is just so beautiful. Another one in consideration that has the same P and E feeling but is shorter is Phoebe, and this might beat out Penelope simply because of her brevity.

    • appellationmountain says

      I love Penelope, too!

      There’s a blogger who writes at Penelope Loves Lists – an organization blog. She has this whole thing about how Penelope is a penname, but also an outlook on life – being unapologetic about being hyper-organized. It’s made the name a little more lady-like, a little less spunky to me, though not enough to tarnish the name. My favorite nn for Penelope is Nell, but can you imagine a child called Nell Sandel? It would be cruel. So if we did have a Penelope she’d be Polly.

      I like Phoebe, too, and I agree – even Penelope Anna Jane or Penelope Mary Anne is an awful lot of syllables. Phoebe gives you more options.

  7. fran says

    thanks for running this one! i love this name and it’s not really as popular here. it’s certainly in the running for our new baby but the nickname i love for it, poppy, is slightly more common than i’d normally like for a girls name!

  8. braveangel2 says

    I love this name – it was a guilty pleasure for a long time, but now I proudly proclaim it. :)

    I like the nickname Pepper too. And Punky Brewster’s full name was Penelope Brewster – crazy huh?

  9. Chezzie says

    I really like the name and I am trying to talk my daughter into using it. However, her husband is resisting. I like the nn Poppy. Penelope doesn’t seem to be very popular which I like but it is an old name that is well know. I am also interested in the nn Penne. Penelope Cruz has definately lifted the profile of this classic name.

  10. UrbanAngel says

    I really, really like Penelope ! Even my brother does. Penny as nickname is short, sweet & girly without being frilly or cutesy. This is coming from a person ith a dislike for the Maisie/Ellie style.

    I think of Penelope Cruz when I hear the name – not the Pigfaced girl & I wanted to watch that movie. Personally, I think Penelope Cruz will be around a lot longer than some movie that only made $20.8 million dollars globally & that opened at 9th place at the box office. Hardly a film that will be known as a classic or well known. Personally, how many kids in 5 or 7 years time that start school will even know about Pigfaced Penelope? I sincerely doubt. The general Penelope Cruz association trumps it by heaps & miles

    Overall, a classic yet exotic choice for me. I associate it with names like Charlotte,Anastasia &Genevieve

  11. British American says

    I never really thought about this name much, until friends were looking for a name ending with an “e” sound. They did end up choosing Penelope and it’s grown on me a lot.


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