Tallulah: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on January 28, 2013

American actress Tallulah Bankhead in the Lond... American actress Tallulah Bankhead in the London stage production of The Dancers, 1923. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on May 17, 2008.  It was substantially revised and reposted on January 28, 2013.

She’s part-saint, part-Hollywood icon.

Our Baby Name of the Day is Tallulah.

Bruce Willis and Demi Moore made waves with their daughters’ names: Rumer, Scout, and Tallulah Belle.  Their youngest arrived in 1994.

By the time Grey‘s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey welcomed daughter called Tallula Fyfe in 2002, no one raised an eyebrow.

That’s not to say that we’ve embraced the name.  She’s never cracked the US Top 1000, and a New Zealand couple ran into trouble for putting the outlandish “Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii” on their daughter’s birth certificate.

But there’s much to love in this name.

Spelled Tallula, she’s a Celtic saint.  The original was closer to Tuilelaith, and means abundance, or maybe princess.  St. Tallula doesn’t make most official saints’ lists, and I couldn’t find anything reliable about her biography.

Add the h, and Tallulah is the legendary Tallulah Bankhead.  Flamboyant and acid-tongued, the Southern belle often relayed the story behind her unusual name.  She was named after her paternal grandmother.  The story goes that the first Tallulah was named after Tallulah Falls in Georgia.

The Falls are said to get their name from a Native American source, either Choctaw or Creek.  The first possible meaning is usually given as leaping water, which makes sense.  Tallulah is also said to come from the Creek word for town.

They’re oft-repeated, but hard to confirm.  The Choctaw word for water is oka.  It doesn’t lead naturally to Tallulah.  The Creek word for town – italwa - is slightly closer, but only slightly.

Ms. Bankhead lit up the silver screen and the London stage in the 1930s and 40s. She was a scandalous figure, with constant talk of her romantic attachments, politics leanings and exploits at parties.  Speculation about her name’s origin and meaning was rife during her heyday.  (Check out this 1941 article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)  She remained in the public eye for many decades thanks to television appearances.

Interestingly, she wasn’t the only Tallulah.  A town in Louisiana got its name after the ex-girlfriend of a railroad developer.  I thought I’d found a Tallulah named after the actress, but her birth announcement indicates that she was named after her grandmother.  The name appears in US Census records, too, and plenty of them pre-date the actress’ success.

So what was Tallulah?  The case for her as a Native American name is weak, and she appears to have been in sparing use for years.  Could she be a rare gem from the nineteenth century?   In 1880, Lula, Lucy,  and Lulu were all Top 100 picks, with Luella, Lucinda, Lucile, Lucille, Lucretia, Lue, Lutie, and Luvenia all in use, too.

Reasons to consider Tallulah today include:

  • Glamourpuss choices like Ava and Harlow, Audrey and Natalie are big for baby girls.
  • Lula, Lulu and Lally all seem like possible nicknames.
  • She also fits right in with Isabella and Olivia – long names that don’t require a short form.

If your surname is simple, and you want a name that is feminine but distinctive, Tallulah is one to consider.

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