She’s Disney’s red-headed mermaiden, but there’s far more to this lovely appellation.
Thanks to Fran for suggesting Ariel as our Baby Name of the Day.
The story of a mermaid who falls for a mortal, trades her tail for legs, and lives happily ever after – more or less – is not new, but the idea of her having a given name is relatively novel. Hans Christian Anderson simply referred to her as “the little mermaid.” The same is true of the statue in Copenhagen.
That changed in 1989, when Disney rebooted the fish tale with sparky songs and animation. She became Ariel, sister to Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Attina, Adella, and Alana. Disney’s writers have never revealed their thinking, but possible origins are plentiful:
- The little mermaid might have spent her days with crustaceans, but her name means “lion of God” in Hebrew. It’s a brave, bold meaning, one appropriate for a girl who goes on a daring adventure.
- The Old Testament used Ariel as another name for Jerusalem. There’s also a mention of an angel called Ariel in the Book of Enoch, though it is not considered canonical by most Christians.
- Shakespeare gave the name to a spirit in The Tempest. The spirit is typically portrayed as male, but not always.
After the Bard, Ariel continued to be used for various spirits and angels in English literature. He’s a fallen angel in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and he’s a sylph, and protector of Belinda in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.
It may be that Ariel was mixed up with aerial – from the Latin aerius – airy. Others have suggested that Shakespeare and company were familiar with the Book of Enoch. Or perhaps it was simply that the idea of faeries and elves and sprites was still very much present, even in Renaissance Europe. There are references to Ariel as a common name for a water sprite, but I can’t confirm the earliest – or, indeed, any definite – use.
Ariel remains a popular masculine given name in Israel, like former prime minister Ariel Sharon. In 1978, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank was established and named Ariel. The same year, Ariel entered the US popularity charts for the first time, at #895.
But I suspect a pop song gets credit for Ariel’s introduction. One-hit wonder Dean Friedman recorded quirky love song “Ariel” in 1977. Then came:
- Footloose gave us rebellious preacher’s daughter, Ariel Moore, in 1984.
- And then Disney’s mermaid … which pushed Ariel into the US Top 100 for three years.
At the same Ariel was on the rise, the actress Mariel Hemingway was at her most popular. Her name can be linked to the evergreen Mary, but she’s named after a Cuban port where her dad and his dad – Ernest Hemingway – used to go fishing. And, of course, ends-in-el and -elle names for girls were about to take off.
Today Ariel stands at #213, many spaces below Isabella and Gabrielle. Arielle and Ariella are also in the US Top 1000, along with similar-sounding choices like Briella.
Overall, there’s more than enough story to offset the associations with a Disney princess, and there’s much to like about this literary, ethereal appellation.
I have a 10 year old Ariel who, by the time she was 4, would respond to “oh, like Ariel the Mermaid?” with “No, I’m Ariel the Girl! But I was named for a Sprite.” She has made the name her own and we have yet to meet another child named Ariel. Still love it!
You’re the one who made me love it so, too! 🙂
SkyeR… are you suggesting that Rachel, Yael, Isabel and Mariel are masculine names as well because they end in “el?” I think ariel is beautiful on a woman especially with the common english pronounciation (air-ee-ul). Just watch the movie Footloose (which came out long before Disney’s mermaid film) or the tv series Medium for lovely women named ariel or actress Ariel Winter from Modern Family and Ariel Waller from Life With Derek.
Nicole Stefanko Fuentes says
My daughter is named Ariel and even though we named her primarily for the meaning “Lion of God” and the sprite who strikes a deal for her freedom (I was very sick with a serious illness during my pregnancy and worried for my baby’s health) I do pronounce it “Aerial” or “airy-el” I just feel it’s a bit more natural sounding for an English speaker and I like the association with airiness. I like it’s unisex appeal but I feel it us feminine enough; aren’t water sprites kind of feminine? The sprite in the Tempest is distinctly feminine even if she us historically played by males, and not since the advent of movies. And the association with Sylvia Plath and her horse “at one with the drive.” If she wants to call herself “Ar-ee- el” when she’s older I think that’s lovely. I just feel silly saying it.
Beautiful name for a girl. I think of Ariel Dubois on Medium as well as Ariel the gorgeous girl from Footloose. Ariel and Rachel are my top choices for girl’s names.
This was my first name nerd fantasy. I spent ages 5-13 knowing for sure that I would have a daughter named Ariel after the little mermaid. To this day my mom still reminds me that her first granddaughter needs to be Ariel, although she is on our long list, she has not remained at the top. Her brother was going to be Franscisco, after my favorite football team San Francisco 49ers.. he is not on our list at all.
Sarah A says
Ariel is one of the few names that I really like on either gender. Though I do prefer the Arielle spelling for girls. I even like all of the different pronunciations. But growing up I was a little obsessed with The Little Mermaid and I had Ariel pajamas, sheet sets, dolls, etc. so I could never use it.
Oh, you forgot a pop culture reference for Ariel: Ariel DuBois was the name of the oldest daughter on the TV show Medium, which ran for 7 seasons. Ariel, Bridget, and Marie – a lovely named sibset.
Add me to the crowd that says Ariel’s all boy to me! When there’s a clear feminine form, use it please, folks!
That said, my boys know several Ariels, almost all girls (one boy in there) and because the “Little Mermaid” in our house is “The Badly Named Mermaid”, even the boys think it skews masculine. *shrug* That’s us. And I really don’t think Ariel’s ready for a girly reboot. In fact, Ariel’s in the “Kelly Camp”, with Shannon & Morgan for me. All names that clearly need to be used for more Boys in the future. May it actually work that way!
Ariel is so handsome on a boy. I’ve always wondered why Disney chose a male name for their little mermaid.
Eldest step-kid was born the year Little Mermaid came out, so it seems like she’s always had female friends named Ariel. So, I’d expect a female Ariel to be in college (with Jasmine.)
I like Ari, a lot in fact it’s on my “extended” list, but I don’t think I’m ready for Ariel to come back to the boy’s camp.
Ariel to me is male. I really like it on a boy. It is also currently gotten trendy in Poland, on males.
The male Ariel I knew growing up HATED that Disney had feminized his name (we were kids when the Little Mermaid hit) and insisted that Ariel was a male name and the female version would properly be Arielle, with the similar pronunciation, like Daniel/Danielle and Gabriel/Gabrielle.
I think of Ariel (pron. the Disney way) mainly as being the name all my elementary school friends wanted to give their daughters when they grew up, making it pretty trendy/dated for me. I’ve been intrigued by its use for boys with the ar-ee-el pronunciation for ages, though, and I really like the “lion of God” meaning–I hadn’t encountered that before!
I think it’s Hans Christian Andersen who’s responsible for the original fairy tale, though (which would explain the location of the statue).
C in DC says
I can still hear Kevin Bacon and John Lithgow saying “Ariel”. That will forever be my reference. 🙂
From wikipedia: “The Little Mermaid” is a popular fairy tale by the Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen about a young mermaid willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to gain a human soul and the love of a human prince. Written originally as a ballet, the tale was first published in 1837 and has been adapted to various media including musical theatre and animated film.
In the end of the story, “she has turned into a spirit, a daughter of the air.” Perhaps that it why her name was chosen as such.
Ditto Photoquilty & SkyeRhyly! Ariel, pronounced ar-ee-el, is firmly male.
Oh, it’s jus the aerial pronunciation I object to. I think ah-ree-EL can be a girl’s name as well as a boy’s name. I prefer it on girls, as a matter of fact. But that might be owing to my having grown up in a Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood and meeting a few male Ariels I didn’t like.
As a kid, I knew a few female Ariels. But when I got to (a mostly Jewish) college, there were several male Ariels, many of whom went by Ari. I think I prefer it on a boy, though I wouldn’t use it because the Little Mermaid has feminized it a bit.
I’m Ariele. I was named after the Dean Friedman song. No one ever confuses my name with a boy’s name, but I do get endless comments about it. I get asked if I was named after the Little Mermaid all the time- I was born 10 years after it came out- and occasionally The Tempest.
Pronunciation is the biggest issue with my name… My name is pronounced air-ee-ELL, not Ahr-ee-ell, or Air-ee-ul. Given how many people mispronounce my name after I’ve just introduced myself, I think it’s a hard name to get right. Even in The Little Mermaid, Sebastian pronounces her name one way, and everyone else pronounces it a different way.
Other girls I have encountered that spell their name “Ariel” have tended to be Jewish, so it seems to me to maybe be a more pure version of their name for their religion- I think that’s nice.
It seems like such a long time since I suggested this name! The Little Mermaid feels like it has been on a stream of constant repitition for years in my house (and will be for years to come I’m sure, with our fourth girl due in October) and although it is a male name I do like it for a girl, only if it is spelt Arielle though. I don’t think I’d ever use it however since it’s not really our style.
It seems like such a long time since I suggested this name! The Little Mermaid feels like it has been on a stream of constant repitition for years in my house (and will be for years to come I’m sure, with our fourth girl due in October) that although it is a male name I do like it for a girl, only if it is spelt Arielle though. I don’t think I’d use it however since it’s not really our style.
For me, its like naming your daughter Daniel or Gabriel, when there are feminine options out there.
my two beautful daughters are rachel and ariel….ariel just like ariel in footloose, medium, grumpy old men , starting out in the evening, in america, ariel winter, ariel waller, ariel gade, ariel and zoey…all beautiful feminine women 🙂
I hate this name on a girl, I see it only as a male name (with this spelling). It’s not only a male name in Israel, its a male name in pretty much all of of central and south America, as well as most of Europe. Its also pronounced ar-ee-el in those countries, not air-yul.
Anyway, for me, its another one of those names that was stolen by the girls, when there is a spelling like Arielle or Ariella that could’ve been used instead. The fact that its still used on boys, (its in the 600s for boys) gives me hope that someday it’ll be more popular for boys since hispanic parents are still giving their boys this name and will probably continue to do so.
You know its quite funny because my name is Ariel. I know more females named Ariel then men. Second, you’re quite rude you know that…. you just basically said every girl named Ariel sounds like a dude…. sad… some people these days… so judgmental. Its a very unique name and I LOVE MY NAME AND I AM PROUD OF IT! Hate all you want 🙂 ARIEL THE LITTLE MERMAID! haha. I’m done now. Peace.
I hate to be picky, but The Little Mermaid was written by Hans Christian Anderson and was not a fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. Anderson was Danish; the Grimm brothers German, which is why Copehagen has her statue.
BUT, Ariel does appeal to me. As a child of the ’80s though, I don’t think I could overcome “naming her after the mermaid.”
Oh, wow – you’re not being picky, I’m just being wrong, wrong, wrong … I’m fixing it now, and thank you.
It always annoyed me that the mermaid ‘s name was pronounced aerial.