Laura counts as a classic girl’s name, ranking in the US Top 1000 every year since 1880, and spending most of those years in the Top 100.
Thanks to Lola for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
Laura: Nature Name
We’ve been taking inspiration from the Latin laurus for ages. It comes from the laurel tree, the source of leaves used to weave ceremonial crowns in the ancient world. Romans gave them to victors in sporting or military endeavors. The Greeks used them, too; the god Apollo is pictured wearing one.
That ties Laura to the natural world, but also to ideals of achievement, too.
Around the third century, Laurus was used as a masculine given name. The feminine form follows logically.
In ninth century Cordoba, a window joined a convent, eventually becoming the abbess. Then came the Muslim invasion, and persecution of Christians. Public worship carried a death sentence. The abbess defied the law, and met her death in a vat of molten lead.
It’s the kind of gory story oft-repeated in the Middle Ages, and depicted in works of art, too.
But the name didn’t catch on in English – at least not then.
There’s also the Laur- name Laurence. Strictly speaking, it comes from the place name Laurentum, a city in the ancient world. But Laurentum also derives – probably – from laurel. So they’re cousins, if a bit removed.
There’s a third century Saint Laurence, a martyr known for refusing to hand over the riches of the church. (Well, when he finally did produce the church’s wealth, he brought in a large group of the faithful poor, explaining that their devotion was the real treasure.) For his troubles, he was roasted alive.
His name did catch on for boys during the Middle Ages, possibly because of a second St. Laurence, this one dating to the seventh century.
That probably explains the use of Laurentia and a handful of other Laur- names for girls in English earlier.
Then along came Petrarch.
The fourteenth century Italian poet was inspired to some of his greatest works by a woman. It’s not clear that she was a real person, but scholars speculate that the married noblewoman Laura de Noves might have been the object of Petrarch’s unrequited love.
It was his works, and his frequent use of the name, that slowly pushed it into wider use in the English-speaking world.
Laura: Secord, Wilder, and More
By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, famous women by the name are plentiful. They include:
- Secord, a Canadian heroine of the War of 1812.
- Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House stories, memoirs of her childhood on the American frontier.
- Photographer Gilpin.
It ranked in the Top 20 in the 1880s, and while it slowly fell afterwards, it never went far.
Laura: Early Revival
Back in 1944, Gene Tierney played the ill-fated Laura Hunt in a movie by the name.
Miss Hunt died of a gunshot wound in her own apartment. Suspects abounded. The beautiful Miss Hunt worked as an advertising executive. The detective investigating her murder becomes obsessed with seeing justice done, but also with the woman herself.
Only then it turns out that she’s not dead at all. Instead, the body they found belonged to a model who’d worked with Miss Hunt previously. Now the race is on to find the real killer and protect Laura before he tries again. I won’t spoil it for you, but things do end happily enough.
The movie was based on a 1943 novel by the same name, and the movie’s title shared it, too. The song and the movie were successful. In fact, the movie is preserved on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
There’s a bump in the name’s use following the movie’s release. It entered the US Top 100, and started to climb.
Laura: 1960s Rebound
By the 1960s, the name was back on top, staying in the Top 25 through the 1980s.
One of the nineteenth century Lauras played a small part in that, when Ingalls Wilder’s novels were adapted as a hit television series.
The years also gave us:
- A General Hospital character, one half of super-couple Luke and Laura.
- The ill-fated character whose death starts the events of Twin Peaks.
- Designer Ashley.
- Actors Dern, Benanti, Prepon, and more.
Laura: On the Radio
There’s the title track from the 1940s movie, of course. But there’s also “Tell Laura I Love Her,” recorded by Ray Peterson in 1960. In the mid-80s, it was Christopher Cross with his mournful #1 hit, “Think of Laura.” Cross based his song on the real-life story of a girl by the name he’d known, killed in an accident.
It was more than enough to keep the name on the top of the popularity charts for years.
After so many years of heavy use, both for real people and in pop culture, no surprise the name started to fade. As of 2017, the former Top 20 favorite ranked a chilly #340.
That puts this name in a different category than Elizabeth, or even Katherine. At first glance, you might mistake it for a trendy choice, a sister for Ashley and Heather.
And yet it doesn’t detract from Laura’s classic status. It would still wear well for a daughter born today – or twenty years from now. In fact, it might be one of those perfect everyone-knows-it, but no-one-is-using-it kind of choices.
What do you think of Laura? Do you consider it classic, dated, or something else entirely?
First published on August 7, 2012, this post was revised substantially and re-posted on November 14, 2018.
I am a Laura and I am surprised, as many other commenters have noted, that you didn’t touch on the pronunciation problem. I am Laura pronounced with the “au” as you might pronounce laundry or auditorium – unless you are from New Jersey, that’s not really an “o” sound. So more like LAHR-ah, although my ears really do hear that u. LOR-ah makes me cringe! Where I grew up, it was understood that these were two different pronunciations of the same spelling. Spelling it Lara was LAIR-ah. Since moving to the Midwest, the accent here completely drops the u sound, it really is more like LAHR-ah and people assume my name is spelled Lara when I pronounce it, or pronounced Lora when I spell it. Someone naming a baby Laura or any other Laur- name should just go in eyes wide open, or not care about the difference in pronunciation. (Actually my parents don’t care how my name is pronounced – I am the one who has always been bothered by being called Lora!)
Good point, Laura – thanks! I didn’t realize that it was a major issue. But vowels are tricky, and I can see Laura-like-Nora or Laura-like-Lara being a challenge …
I would’ve named a girl Laura in a heartbeat, after Half-Pint, except that my aunt’s name is Lori sort for Lorraine, and so nope. Although it’s also a family name : my great-grandmother Mary, who was a Wilder, had sisters named Grace and Laura and a cousin named Carrie. All long before the books and far away from their distant cousin Almanzo’s wife.
I love Laura, Lauren, and Laurel! As a matter of fact, I have a Lauren. She was named after my great aunt Lora. There are so many Laura’s in my family that I wanted to make her name just a little bit different so it wasn’t confusing when we all got together!
Thanks for sharing the history of the name Laura!
Kay V says
Laura is a family name for me. My oldest sister and mother share the name. It was my grandmother’s second middle. It was also my grandmother’s aunt’s name. It is now my niece’s middle name.
Unfortunately for me it is unusable. I live in the south and am likely to stay and the southern pronunciation is markedly different than the family pronunciation. It would drive me bonkers trying (and, I know, failing) to get everyone around me to pronounce the name correctly. Luckily I have other family names I’ll be happy to pass along.
I grew up with many Laura’s, Lara’s, Lauren’s, etc. So they are all a bit tired to my ears. But Laurel, Loretta, and Lawrencia (I’d call her Wren) are all lovely variations.
I like the name but know so many of them. I have a cousin Laura whose brother is dating a Laura. My brother is also dating a Laura, and I have at least 2 friends named Laura…and that’s just the closer ones. I knew a Lara once and I considered Lara and Lora as fresher options, but they are to close to so many Lauras.
Charlotte Vera says
My mum, who has two older sisters with names beginning with the letter L, could have been a Laura. Thankfully some neighbours already had a daughter called Laura, so instead my mum became the much more unique Vera.
I really like Laurel. Laura, however, doesn’t have quite enough… something… for me. I loved Little House on the Prairie books, but it was her Ma, Caroline, whose name I always liked best.
Laura was a character in a Lucy Maude Montgomery series as well, a beloved but very soft and no-edges auntie, and that’s sort of how I picture it, its classicness can’t be denied but it doesn’t have the spunk of some other vintage girls’ names, for me.
I have to say I honestly like Laura. It’s my name, after all. I just feel like it’s not me, half the time. 😀 My brother started calling me Lola because he couldn’t say the ‘r’ in Laura when he was 18 months old. And it stuck even after he could.
I like that it’s clearly feminine, but only a little delicate. I thoroughly dislike writing my name, though. The ‘up, up, up’ gives me fits! (write ‘aur’ 5 times fast and you’ll see why I have fits). 😀
I never thought I’d be glad I was Laura, but honestly? I could’ve been: Rebecca, Lilian or Polly, I think I rather lucked out. Of Pop’s choices, I got the best of the bunch. 😀
Charlotte Vera says
Funny, I actually really enjoy writing Laura. I just tried doing so many times in succesion and had a hard time stopping. Now try writing my maiden name — ick, that as a tough one to write in cursive.
@Charlotte Vera: Funny. 😀 My Grandmother’s last name was a huge Polish/Russian thing ending in -iwicz. That one still give me fits writing it, there are 14 letters in all in that surname! I’m glad Pop was a simpler Mac-zie. :P. But my OH laughs at me when I write out Laura. 9 times out of 10, I spell my own name wrong. Maybe I *should* have been Lilian after Grandma. :/
Laura is great, classic.
Laura Rose says
What a wonderful name! LOL.
I was named after my mother’s childhood love, Little House on the Prairie, as well as her aunt Laura.
Fun fact: Rose was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter.
I know identical twins – in their early 30’s now – who are named Rose and Laura! They’re great names together, I think. 🙂
I love Laura! It helps, no doubt, that I was a *huge* Little House fan back in the day (the books and the tv show). But even more than that, my dearest friend who I’ve known for almost 30 years is a Laura. It’s nothing but wonderful for me, largely because of her.
@Kristin, I understand the pronunciation issues, though. My friend is a LOR-ah (and that’s my preferred pronunciation), but I knew people who said LAHR-ah where I grew up.
Laura is a nice enough name, it’s just always felt a bit down-home country, and a bit doughy to me. My sister was a huge fan of Little House on the Prairie growing up. I was always annoyed by it (I’m five years younger than her, so it was increadibly boring to me.) so that might color my feelings of the name somewhat. Also, Laura has pronunciation issues for me. Where I grew up, it is pronounced LAHR-ah, not LOR-ah.
I love Laura, she seems so timeless! I never considered Loretta as a form of Laura though–I always saw Loretta as a Marian name, but it does make sense now that I think of it.
Its obviously too close to my own name, but on top of that, I get called Laura all the time! Friends and even family jut can’t get my name right. At least it’s not the dreaded Lori. I would warn parents thinking of giving a Laur- name that their child will always get mistaken for another name. There are just too many of us.
Laura was my grandmother. I thought about it for a minute during both my pregnancies. But with the L last name, it was not a forerunner. Had boys anyway. Then I met a Laura who ruined the name for me. Considering I called my grandmother Bubby, and not Laura, when I hear the name, I think of this other woman I knew, who was just an awful person. It’s a shame because it’s such a pretty name.