flamThe baby name Carmela appeared in the US Top 1000 most years into the 1970s. But lately it’s faded from use. Could this meaningful choice be ready for revival?
Thanks to Alexandra for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
Carmela comes from the Hebrew word Karmel – garden.
It’s a mountain in Israel, mentioned in the Old Testament. Carmel also refers to an ancient city in Judea. And today, Mount Carmel is a mountain range in Northern Israel, home to the city of Haifa. In Arabic, it’s also known as Mount Mar Elias.
REFUGE & WARTIME
Over the centuries, Mount Carmel has been sought as a place of refuge – and more.
According to the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah’s miraculous fire burned on the mountain. He challenged the pagan priests. If their god was so great, surely he could light a fire? They failed, but flames fell from the sky and lit Elijah’s fire.
It served as a strategic location in battle. From the fifteenth century BC, right up through the first World War, various struggles have played out in the hills.
So how does the baby name Carmela develop from this historic mountain?
Like so many names, it’s all about Mary.
One of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s many titles is Our Lady of Mount Carmel. She serves as patron to the Carmelites, a religious order founded on the mountain sometime during the medieval Crusades.
The founders chose the location because of Elijah’s legendary demonstration of faith. The original group lived as hermits on the mountainside.
They weren’t able to remain in the Holy Land, however, and their order instead established houses across Europe.
That spread the name – and the familiarity with Our Lady of Mount Carmel – as the order expanded.
CARMEN, CARMEL, CARMELA
Catholic families embraced the name, particularly in Italy and Spain, in several forms. It’s sometimes given in combination with Maria or Mary. People of faith consider it a Marian name, one that honors the saint.
In Latin, Carmen is also the word for song. Bizet’s opera cemented that connection. Now Carmen feels like a separate choice with a different set of associations. But chances are that it, too, originated as part of the baby name Carmela’s history.
Carmel – without the final a – might be a little close to caramel. The sticky sweet dessert is unrelated to the place name.
But Carmela sounds like a girl’s given name, and it has flourished.
It appeared in the US Top 1000 every year from 1888 until 1976. That tracks with the increasing number of Italian immigrants coming to the US. There’s a big bump in 1887, and the numbers stayed high into the early 1920s. It peaked in the year 1923, with 586 girls receiving the baby name Carmela.
That made Carmela a logical pick for the wife of television’s most famous mob boss, Tony Soprano.
Edie Falco won multiple Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Tony’s conflicted wife. She’s Italian – obviously – and she’s Tony’s high school sweetheart. That puts her birth somewhere around 1960. While it wasn’t peak-Carmela, the name was still in steady use.
The choice may also be a nod to another famous fictional crime family: the Corleones. In The Godfather, we meet Carmela Corleone, the Sicilian born wife of Vito, and mom to Sonny, Fredo, Michael, and Connie. The novel was published in 1969, and the first movie followed in 1972. Sequels followed.
On a different note, Ay Carmela was a folk song famous during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. It traces its roots to the early 1800s, when Spanish guerrillas fought to resist Napoleon during the Peninsular War.
A handful of other high-profile Spanish language uses suggest it was equally well-known in both romance languages.
Today, the name feels vintage. It’s no nineteenth century antique, but the baby name Carmela has acquired the patina of a midcentury find.
Soundwise, Carmela shares something in common with other -ella enders, like Gabriella, Isabella, and even names like Camila. But it also brings to mind the names with hard consonants: Norma, Gretchen, Gertrude, Mildred. The “carm” sound is less stylish today, offsetting the -ela ending.
All of that said, it might be the perfect combination – a name that stands out just enough to capture attention, but still fits in nicely.
Plus, it’s got meaning galore, and a lot of story behind it, too.
Do you think the baby name Carmela? Would you consider it for a daughter?
First published on September 27, 2011, this post was revised substantially on July 22, 2020.
That’s funny! My mom is Carmela and her mom, my grandma, is Josephine. And I named my daughter Gabriella Giuseppina.
I am unable to view the whole post. I’d love to read it if you get a chance to fix it!
IS THERE A ST. CARMELA….THANKS
No – not technically, at least not according to catholic.org, which is a pretty reliable source. (Though it does not list all of the contested saints, and you have to be careful with alternate spellings.) In any case, Carmela is still a Marian name – a name that honors the Virgin Mary. Like Assumpta or Lourdes or Stella Maris, any of the names that refer to aspects or pilgrimage sites are all generally considered in the same class as saints’ names.
Charles Muhigirwa says
When I was asked to provide a name for a baby girl, I thought of my ordination date that falls on July 16. In the Catholic Church, it is a memorial for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. So, I told my friend to christen her: Maria Carmela. She chose Carmela over Maria. Reason: It is not as common as Maria.
Charlotte Vera says
Yum, caramel! Too closely related to the food for my own taste (no pun intended), but pretty all the same.
Carmen is my favorite of the Karmel names, but Carmela is very nice. It could seem sugary, but the Sopranos character gives it some zest.
Nicely said, Julie!
Sarah A says
Carmela is lovely. I knew a girl growing up named Carmelle. I love how Carmela evokes caramels and thus candy and sweetness, but it’s not an overly frilly or cutesy name. Would love to hear Carmela over Gabriella or Isabella 🙂
Ok, now that I’ve been distracted for 10 minutes by the Cadbury website… I love seeing Carmela here! I have a baby cousin Carmella, whose twin sis is Josephine. Both are (Itallian) family names. There’s one more to come from that family so we’ll see what comes off our family tree next. It will probably be something in a a similar vein.
C in DC says
Oooo, Carmella and Josephine. How sweet. I especially <3 Josephine. It was only name I was expressly asked not to use by close family when I was pregnant with my twins, because my MIL has bad associations with it.
I went to school with a Carmella – it was considered old-fashioned even back then. (Yes she was Italian Catholic, and very good-looking).
Her nickname at school was Caramello Koala, sometimes just Koala. We had a sympathetic relationship because my nickname was Goanna; eventually we were just Koko and Gogo and I think everyone forgot what our nicknames were based on!