letter i
Image by Leo Reynolds via Flickr

Isabella holds the top spot in the US rankings, and mini-names like Ava and Mia are also in the Top Ten.  So why isn’t this one more popular?

Liz’s week continues with the mysterious Isa as our Baby Name of the Day.

It sometimes seems like the shorter a name, the more complex its origins.  There’s more than one way to get to Isa.

She’s usually listed as a short form of Isabella, but Isa could serve as a diminutive for any Isa- name.  There’s Isabeau, Isaura and Isadora, Isannah and Isolde.  With so many girls answering to Isabella, it almost seems inevitable that some will go looking for a nickname beyond Izzy or Bella.

Despite being just three letters, there are two competing pronunciations – EE sa and EYE sa.  If you think of Isa as a Spanish diminutive for Isabella, then the long ee makes sense.  But Australia’s Mount Isa sounds more like Isis or Ida, with the eye sound.  Tomi Swick’s song “Listen Isa” uses the eye sound, too. Given the vast number of cultures in which she’s found, it is impossible to give a definitive pronunciation for Isa.

If you recall Nameberry’s recent post on Dutch names for girls, you might remember seeing Isa on their list.  Three-letter names are big for girls in the Netherlands, too: Amy, Kim, Bo, Fay, Liv, Noa, Aya, Jet, Lot, and Evy are all mentioned.  The official list puts Isa at #12 in 2010.

As for the other possible origins and meanings of Isa, I’m doubtful of their accuracy.  Isabella and her variants have long been popular names, in use throughout Europe.  And Isa’s appearance in the US Top 1000 from 1880 through the early 1900s tracks with greater use of Isabella, too.  Options include:

  • From the Old High German isarn, the origin of the German word for iron, Eisen;
  • Follow isarn back even farther and you’ll find the Greek ieros – strong.  Possibly that’s why a few sites list Isa’s meaning as strong;
  • The Chamorro people are native to Guam and the Mariana Islands, and their dictionary lists isa as the Chamorro word for rainbow. But the area was under Spanish rule for three centuries, so it is tough to say if Isa is considered a traditional Chamorro name, but this article suggests it is possible.

Then there’s the religious connection: along with Yasu, Isa is a name for Jesus in Arabic.  This makes it a masculine name in some parts of the world.

If you followed the BBC’s adaptation of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, with Kenneth Brannagh starring as Swedish Police Inspector Kurt Wallander, you might recall a minor character from the first season called Isa.

But most English-speaking parents will think of Isa as feminine, and possibly as an iguana.  That’s because a member of Dora the Explorer’s animated entourage is an iguana called Isa.

If you’re looking for a simple name that is distinctive in the English-speaking world, but extremely portable, Isa’s pan-European flair could appeal.  The popularity of Dora suggests that the EE sa pronunciation would work best today, but both are viable options.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I am called Isa as a feminine form of the Germanic male name Ise (ee-suh) / Iso (ee-soh), meaning “ice” or “iron” (I am Dutch, and the name was also used by my greatgrandmother and her grandmother). It is not a shortened version of an other name. It is pronounced as Ee-sah.

  2. Strangely enough my name is Isa… parents just liked the name and gave all us kids in the family unique names. But I dig it, I’m glad they didn’t name me something everyone hears every day like Adam or John.

  3. My parent named me after my grandmother Elizabeth Ann. But my father whos from El Salvador wanted a nick name for me so called me Isa. I love it. I have yet to meet anyone with the name Isa. @isa__E follow me.

  4. Isa is my favorite character on Dora, and a friend’s sister is Isa, short for Elizabeth! I like it better than Liz.

  5. I went to school with a girl named Aisa, eye-za. Not sure if that is a seperate name or not. I say them both the same way.