She’s a Scottish take on the evergreen Elizabeth.
Thanks to Lola and Shan for suggesting Elspeth as our Baby Name of the Day.
Like many a true classic, Elizabeth has been transformed by the ages, borrowed and reassembled in languages all over the world. Some of her versions are obscure – like the medieval Isabeau or Belsante. Others are common in their place, but quite rare elsewhere in the world.
File Elspeth in the latter category. She’s reasonably common in the UK, but nearly unknown in the US, where she has never appeared in the Top 1000.
There are plenty of Elspeths in the UK. Agatha Christie gave the name to a character. In real life, we find:
- English designer Elspeth Gibson;
- Veteran Scottish actress Elspeth Gray had long a career television, and was one of several mothers of the bride in 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral;
- The famous Huxley family includes an Elspeth, a writer best known for her memoirs about growing up in Colonial Kenya in the early twentieth century.
All of these Elspeths are around a certain age, and that may be an issue – in Great Britain, she’s mature, even fusty, and not-quite-ready for revival. The name of your aunt, sure, but not your newborn niece. In the 2001 television version of Snow White, the evil queen is named Elspeth.
But in the US, she’s deliciously rare. Popular short forms Ella, Ellie, and Elle are available if your daughter prefers to blend in. Elspeth manages to stand out. She’s frills-free and unexpected, like Tamsin or Margot.
While digging through Burke’s Peerage – where Elspeths abound – I found this sibset: Elspeth, Ailsa, and Fergus. I also found plenty of families with an Elizabeth in one generation and an Elspeth in the next, or vice versa.
The Elspeth that I can’t quite trace is Miss Christian Elspeth Mallock. Her portrait is above; it was painted by Edward Arthur Walton, the noted Scottish portrait and landscape painter, active in the late 1800s and early part of the twentieth century. Her biography might be lost, but her image endures – and looks, to me, very much like an Elspeth.
The thing that probably confuses parents about Elspeth is the b-to-p consonant shift. Elsbeth, like Lisbeth, seems like a logical contracted form of Elizabeth. But -peth probably strikes some as unusual. I’m not sure I can explain the shift; while b-to-p occurs in many words, most of those changes took place by the 800s – well before Elizabeth would have been a common name in England. (Isabel was dominant until the ascension of Queen Elizabeth I.) Still, I can find Elspet in the records from medieval England, so the forms must have co-existed for ages.
Overall, Elspeth has a quirky Scottish charm that works well in the US today. She’s offbeat, but not outrageous. If you’re looking for a tailored name for a girl that isn’t a surname or borrowed from the boys, and still nods towards the classics, Elspeth could appeal.