Ooh La La: French Names for Girls

by appellationmountain on July 17, 2008

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve heard that the Jolie-Pitt twins have arrived, and have been named Knox Leon and Vivienne Marcheline.

Our recent Name of the Day post on Etienne suggests that there’s little hope of a revival for most French-flavored boys’ names, at least in the first spot. But how about the girls?

Read on for a discussion of past French names in favor in the US, and some très chic, très français ideas for a nom de fille today.

Vivienne is, of course, likely to re-enter the Top 1000 in the next year or two. But parents have been borrowing inspiration from the ever so fashionable French for generations. These Top 100 monikers al charted between 1880 and 1939:

  • Blanche
  • Elaine
  • Genevieve
  • Jacqueline
  • Josephine
  • Louise
  • Lucille
  • Marguerite
  • Pauline

Most remained in use, and many climbed the charts during the Baby Boom. They were joined by:

  • Diane
  • Joanne
  • Michelle
  • Renee
  • Suzanne
  • Valerie

Modern mamas might wear one of these names, but other French-inspired favorites from 1970 onwards include:

  • Danielle
  • Denise
  • Nicole
  • Stephanie

And current classrooms are filled with girls called:

  • Claire
  • Gabrielle, the given name of Coco Chanel
  • Madeline, and the even more deliciously French Madeleine

So what’s next, besides Vivienne? Here are a few to watch:

  • Solange, a French shepherdess who became a saint back in the 9th century. Currently unranked in the US. The name derives from the Latin term for “religious,” and some are tempted to break this down to sol – sun – and ange – angel – though that’s etymologically incorrect.
  • Chantal, a place name and saint’s surname that gets some lift from her similarity to chant, the French word for song. Plus, this choice is far more subtle than naming your daughter Chanel. While Chantal did not rank in the US Top 1000 last year, Chanel came in at #879. Don’t go there!
  • Severine, pronounced say vuh REEN, this name comes from an old Latin family name, Severinus. While Severus might be a bit too Harry Potter for your son, this is an interesting feminization of a rarely heard name. She’s unranked in the US.
  • Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris has seen her name rise in popularity in earlier generations. Today she stands at a familiar, but not terribly common #344.
  • Celeste, like Genevieve, she’s quite familiar, but reasonably underused at #354.
  • Oceane, yup, the French world is not immune to the lure of nature names. We love the sound of this one – o say AHN – but fear she’d have to answer to plain old Ocean. Neither is in the Top 1000 here, but Oceane is big on the other side of the sea, and in Quebec.
  • Francoise, the French feminine form of Francis seems like a long shot at first, and indeed she’s not in the US Top 1000. But with the Italian Francesca at #477 and the throwback Frances at #825, it’s an interesting option with the exotic pronunciation frahn SWAHZ. Plus, it literally means “from France.”
  • Mireille, the heroine of Pierre Capretz’ French in Action series, she’s taught countless American students to parlez français. While the spelling is tricky, the sound – mee RAY – is appealing and simple. She was unranked as of 2007.
  • Anais, a well known option thanks to writer Anais Nin, this variant of Anna is pronounced ah nah EES, thought we’ve met a modern bearer of the name who pared it down to ah NEES, which seems easier to wear. She ranked #906 in 2007.
  • Josephine, one of the earlier Gallic imports, she’s back in a big way among the fashionable and today stands at #224. It’s impossible to say her name without thinking of Napoleon.
  • Lilou, a white hot French moniker related to Lily and Liliane. Pronounced LEE loo, she’s unranked in the US. We think she’s a bit too flimsy to bestow independently, but could be a fabulous nickname alternative for Lillian.
  • Maelys, another current favorite in the Francophone world. It’s a feminization of Mael, a 5th century Breton saint. The sound – MAH eh liss – is tricky in English, and she’s unranked in the US. MaelleMAH el – is also sometimes heard.
  • Eulalie, the French version of Eulalia, yet another saint, has an engaging, spirited feel and offers the nickname Lally. She’s unranked in the US.
  • Capucine, actually a botanical choice, referring to the nasturtium. In the US, she’d inevitably be confused for a cup of strong coffee with frothy milk. It’s also doubtful that the sound – kah pu SEEN – would be easily embraced. But it’s an interesting floral-flair option, especially for the middle spot. Capucine is unranked in the US.
  • Elodie, one that works in English! The mellifluous Elodie is – what else – a saint’s name, more commonly written as Alodia. She’s unranked in the US, but thanks to the easy nickname option Ellie, wouldn’t be too much for an American girl to wear.
  • Sidonie, a name that would almost inevitably be confused with Sidney, is actually based on an old Latin name referring to the city of Sidon, in Phoenicia. Despite her similarity to the two-syllable gender-spanning choice, we think Sidonie could work. She’s unranked in the US.
  • Noemie, a French twist on Naomi, strikes us as one of the most appealing possibilities on our list. We’ve also seen Noemi, but the “ie” ending makes this a smidge more distinct than her familiar cousin. Technically, she’s no ay MEE, but we’d favor a toned-down sound for the States – no eh MEE. Noemie is unranked in the US, but Noemi charts at #636.
  • Salome, a well-known Biblical bad girl, this moniker is redeemed by the presence of a second Salome in the New Testament. (Salome #2 witnesses the crucifixion.) Plus, her name derives from the Hebrew word shalom, or peace. The sound – sah LO may – is distinctive, interesting, and yes, French. Or at least popular in France. Salome is unranked in the US.

Throughout our list, you’ll note that we’ve declined to use diacritical marks, though we’ve preserved the pronunciations as intended in French, unless otherwise noted. Why? Any maman considering a French appellation for her darling daughter should know that the umlaut, cedilla and other accents are not acknowledged in American English. They won’t appear on her birth certificate or most other identifying documents.

Some names suffer without them – it’s tough to tell if Oceane is French-fried or simply misspelled. Others fare just fine. It’s one more thing to consider when considering these pretty, but perhaps tongue-challenging, appellations.

Previous post:

Next post: