Camille: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on February 4, 2013

La Dame aux camélias from the novel by Alexand... La Dame aux camélias, engraving by Adolphe Pierre Riffaut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Editor’s note: This post first appeared on January 24, 2008 as Doomed Heroines: Camille.  It was substantially revised as re-posted on February 4, 2013.

She’s a français, feminine pick associated with a handful of tragic heroines.

Thanks to Melissa for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day:  Camille.

Camille makes me think of camellias, but this isn’t another Jacinta/hyacinth case.  Instead, the camellia takes its name from botanist Georg Joseph Kamel.

The name has completely separate roots.  She evolved from Camillus, which had two meanings in ancient Rome.  First, it was a cognomen, worn by Marcus Furius Camillus, a successful fourth century BC solider-statesman.  But it was also a term for a young acolyte in a religious service.  It’s not clear whether the name is linked to the term or has other roots.

In Roman Camilla was a warrior maiden. She has a long history of use as a given name.

Camillus became a saint’s name around 1600 in Italy.  Camillo, Camilo, and Camille all evolved in romance languages.

Camille is both masculine and feminine in French, but since the middle of the twentieth century, she’s almost exclusively used for girls.

Could it have something to do with Alexandre du Mas, fils?  His 1848 novel La Dame aux camélias was the story of Marguerite, a courtesan who falls in love with a regular Joe called Armand.  When Armand’s scandal-fearing father intervenes, Marguerite agrees to leave quietly, and eventually dies alone.  It’s all quite romantic and tragic.  du Mas adapted his novel for the stage in 1852, and it remains among the most popular productions of all time.

Verdi adapted the story as La traviata - the fallen woman.  He changed Marguerite to Violetta.  It remains a standard in operatic repertoires, among the most-performed of all time.

But how do La Dame aux camélias and La traviata lead to the given name Camille?

In 1915, the story was adapted for the big screen.  The movie and the heroine were both now called Camille.  A second silent film came along in 1917, with Theda Bara as Marguerite.  Then came 1936’s film starring Greta Garbo.  Garbo’s character started out as Marguerite and became known as Dame Camille.

Camille has been in the US Top 1000 since 1880.  Garbo won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance, and also lifted the name.  Prior to 1936, Camille typically ranked in the 400s or higher.  She ranked in the 300s after the movie, and has generally fared better in the twentieth century.

Today’s trends favor her:

  • Cameron and Camden have been popular Cam- names in recent years.  Camila is currently #48 for girls.
  • French names for girls are ever so stylish.
  • She feels like a vintage name ready for rediscovery, a sister for Amelia or Olive.

Starbaby Willow Smith’s full name is Willow Camille Reign.  Princess Stephanie of Monaco has children named Louis, Pauline, and Camille Marie Kelly.  And, of course, Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005.

And yet Camille remains relatively underused.  At #240 in 2011, she’s gained modestly in recent years.  Tessa, Hazel, and Miranda are all slightly more common.

This makes her a great, wearable possibility for parents seeking an alternative to Genevieve and Madeleine, or even tailored feminine choices like Adele and Charlotte.  Tragic heroine aside, Camille would wear well in 2013.

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