Baby Name of the Day: Penelope

by appellationmountain on March 1, 2008

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!

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