Esme: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on October 22, 2012

Front cover (1960 edition)'' Front cover (1960 edition)” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on May 23, 2008.  It was substantially revised and re-posted on October 22, 2012.

The bookshelf gave us this name, and the bookshelf could take her away, too.

Thanks to Natalie for suggesting today’s Baby Name of the Day: Esme.

Esme first surfaces as a masculine name in sixteenth century Scotland, derived from the Old French esmer - to respect or admire.  The French and Scots had a close diplomatic relationship for centuries, from the 1200s into the sixteenth century, so French names aren’t foreign in Scotland.

The first notable bearer was a Scottish nobleman, an adviser to James IV.  Though he lost his position in political turmoil, his descendants held the title Duke of Lennox for generations, and several were also called Esme.  Other unusual names: LudovicGabrielle- suggest that the family were daring namers in their day.

Strictly speaking, those early men were Esmé, with the diacritical mark.  Women would have been Esmée – though I cannot find any.

The named remained masculine – and very rare – into the 1800s.  The name wasn’t any more common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but Esme definitely switched from masculine to feminine by mid-century.

In 1950 JD Salinger’s short story For Esmé With Love and Squalor appeared in The New Yorker.  His Esmé was an orphan, a young woman of extraordinary poise beyond her years.  The story remains among the most popular of Salinger’s works.  A few years later, William Gaddis used the name for a character in his debut novel, The Recognitions.

While the name lost its accent, it is typically pronounced EZ may, though in our Zoe/Chloe/Penelope era, you might meet a few who prefer EZ mee.

Besides her French origins, Esme could be short for the elaborate Esmeralda, the Spanish word for emerald, and a departure in another literary direction.

Esme has been quietly catching on since the 1990s:

  • Actor Anthony Edwards has an Esme, sister to Wallis and Poppy.
  • Katey Sagal chose Esme Louise for her daughter.
  • Michael J. Fox has three girls, including Esme Annabelle.

Esme caught on just as Emma and Emily were approaching their zenith.  She seemed like a sophisticated literary pick, frills-free but still feminine, unexpected but not too out there.  The numbers of baby Esmes were growing.

And then came Twilight.  For all that Stephenie Meyer is sometimes credited with boosting names like Bella and Jacob, it really isn’t so.  The names were already epidemic, chart-topping favorites.  Meyer has an ear for names that we are likely to favor today, regardless of historic authenticity.  Census records confirm that women were named Esme in the late 1800s, which tracks with vampire matriarch Esme Cullen’s story.  But it isn’t a very likely choice.

Esme entered the US Top 1000 in 2010 at #921, a long-awaited arrival.  But just as more parents were shortlisting Esme as an unusual possibility for a daughter, others were avoiding her, worried that they’d be asked if they chose the name from the vampire romance.

Still, 258 girls received in the name in 2011, ranking her #981 in the US.  Esmee, Esmae, and Ezme are also in use.

Overall, Esme is a literary choice with a lovely meaning and great style.  If you can overlook a few references to vampires, Esme remains a standout choice for a daughter.

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