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.
- 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.