She’s a Hungarian heritage choice seldom heard in the US.
Thanks to Kirsten for suggesting her grandmother’s name as our Baby Name of the Day: Ilona.
Conventional wisdom holds that Ilona is the Hungarian form of Helen. It tracks. Helen is heard in nearly every European language, and she’s morphed into forms like Helena, Elena and Jelena and maybe even Eleanor. Ilona isn’t such a stretch.
She’s also heard in Russia, Lithuania, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, as well as Finland. This suggests other possible sources:
- The Finnish word for joy is ilo, so Ilona could be a play on the noun. Or not – after all, Finnish and Hungarian are closely related languages.
- In Hungarian fairy tales, Ilona is sometimes the name of a fairy queen. This doesn’t necessarily shine light on her meaning, but it suggests another reason Ilona has been embraced by Hungarian parents over the years. (Incidentally, Hungarian fairies are apparently an interesting breed.)
Native speakers pronounce the name something like EE lo nah, but in the US, you’d likely eh LO nah. It makes her sound something like alone with the letter a tacked on the end. Maybe that’s why she’s never caught on.
Ilona is big in Hungarian history, though:
- Vlad III the Impaler, the ruler of Wallachia, married twice. His second wife was the well-born Hungarian noble, Ilona. Vlad was known for his ruthless, cruel behavior, and his patronym - Dracul - would later inspire Bram Stoker’s famous novel.
- In the late seventeenth century, Countess Ilona Zrínyi was considered a national heroine and freedom fighter. Born in Croatia, she opposed the occupation of Hungary and worked for her adopted nation’s independence from the Hapsburg’s empire building. Incidentally, her birth name was Jelena. Jelena is considered the Croatian form of Helen, but also has ties to words meaning tree and deer.
- Fast forward to the 1920s and a member of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine was named Ilona. She was styled Archduchess Ilona of Austria, but also answered to Helene, suggesting that by the twentieth century, the connection between Helen and Ilona was commonly accepted. She married Duke Georg Alexander of Mecklenberg in 1946, heir to the Dukedom of Mecklenberg.
That last Ilona must have attracted some press. I can’t track down any articles, but there’s a spike in girls named Ilona in the US in the 1940s. That said, Ilona has never appeared in the US Top 1000. Around two dozen girls have received the name most years for the past decade or so – a small enough number that they could all be named after relatives.
She doesn’t appear to be very popular for girls born in Hungary today, though I can’t say if she’s actually out of fashion.
Finland is another story, where Ilona seems to be in steady use, akin to Amelia, Alyssa, or maybe Savannah in the US.
How would she wear for English speakers? I suspect there are some pronunciation problems, but they’re not insurmountable.
She offers some charming nickname possibilities, too – Lola, or maybe Lona.
On balance, Ilona is an attractive Hungarian heritage choice. She’s unexpected in the US, but perfectly wearable.