Parents by the thousands have gone mad for Madeline in recent years.

Today’s Baby Name of the Day is an intriguing, all-but-forgotten variant: Madelon.

I met a little Madelon, and I rolled my eyes. It was a few years ago, pre-AppMtn. I could, in my snobbish way, countenance Madeline. But Madeleine was, I was certain, the most elegant spelling, the one that anyone with style would select.

Then I stumbled on 1931’s The Sin of Madelon Claudet. Helen Hayes won a Best Actress Oscar for the role.

And nope, the sin was not creatively re-spelling her name.

Hayes played an innocent French farmer’s daughter who runs off with her boyfriend, only to find herself pregnant and abandoned. Madelon becomes a wealthy count’s mistress, raising her son in comfort. Only the wealthy count is a jewel thief, and Madelon is jailed for his crimes.

Fast forward to her post-prison life. Her son believes his mother is dead. She becomes a thief and a prostitute to secretly finance his education. And, at long last, she gets her happy ending.

Madelon was a logical name for the character. The New Testament’s Mary Magdalene was a devoted Christian, present at Jesus’ crucifixion. For years, the common reading was that she was a prostitute; today, scholars suggest that’s a misinterpretation. What’s sure is that she was from the village of Magdala, hence her name. Magdala is related to the word for tower, so you’ll sometimes see that listed as the meaning of any of the Mad- names.

Parents have long named their daughters after Saint Mary Magdalene. Magdalena is the formal Latin version. Madelon is found in French and Dutch. She’s not very common in France today, though she’s still in use. She seems equally out-of-step with popular Dutch picks like Sanne and Lotte.

But there are notable Dutch Madelons, and the name appears regularly in the US, just enough to suggest that until the nineteenth century – and even into the twentieth – it was not so very uncommon to meet a Madelon.

  • Madelon Stockwell made waves as the first female student to enroll at the University of Michigan when they first admitted women in 1870;
  • Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules told the story of Magdelon and Cathos, two country girls visiting Paris and behaving rather badly. Magdelon is sometimes called Madelon in translation;
  • E.T.A. Hoffman’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri: A Tale from the Times of Louis XIV was published in 1819. Set in 1600s Paris with a band of murderous jewel thieves on the loose, Mademoiselle Madeleine Scuderi is a poet who manages to untangle the mystery when all others fail. Along the way, she takes in Madelon, a young woman caught up in the middle;
  • In the 1938 Hollywood drama Port of Seven Seas, Madelon of Marseilles was yet another poor forlorn young thing, but this time she has a happy ending;
  • During the American Revolution, “Pauvre Madelon” was a popular song – it appears in a 1700s Princeton songbook, among other references;
  • On a very different note, HP-exec turned politician Carly Fiorina’s mom was a Madelon.

So Madelon is no creative recasting of a done-to-death appellation. It’s a valid foreign variant. She’s lost steam in the US, but with her history in mind, Madelon seems like an interesting option.

I stand corrected!

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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  1. Your story reminds me of the time I met a little girl named Kaisa. At the time, I assumed it was something her parent’s had made up. Later on I learned her Dad was Finnish!

    With the -lon ending, I would of assumed Madelon was a male name,

  2. Sorry, to me it looks like MAD-ah-lon, not MAD-ah-lin. I don’t like it. Madeline was our pick for my first or second pregnancy (they were both miscarriages). Madeline Elise, it was to be, and while it’s pretty, she would definitely not have stood alone! I do still find Madeline pretty, but ever since someone I know named her daughters Madison and Madeline, I can’t even think about putting it on a list.

  3. Because it’s a different spelling, I keep wanting contort the sound into something like mad-a-LAWN or ma-da-LONE or something equally odd. That -lon ending always makes me think sci-fi/robo-baby thoughts, for some reason.

    @Ewigweibliche – some nn suggestions – Addie, Mel, Lonnie, Del, Della, Lo, and perhaps a real stretch here: Mona.

    But I love that I had never heard of Madelon before – very curious about the names for the remainder of birthday week!!!

  4. What a beautiful find! I’d never heard of Madelon before, but it seems less fussy Madeleine-et-all while still retaining their euphonious sound.

  5. Interesting! I’ve never heard Madelon before. I’m curious to see what else you have in store for us this week.

  6. This has an interesting history, but it still looks awkward to me. It reminds me too much of medellion.

  7. This is a great name! I love Madeleine, but find it twee. Madelon might be the answer. What about nicknames, though? I’m not fond at all of Maddie.

  8. While it’s interesting to discover that a name you thought was a recent invention actually has a history of use and can therefore be considered ‘legit’, parents choosing an obscure name like Madelon have to consider that most people will make the same assumption you did: that the name is the parents’ own creative spelling of Madeleine. That is, unless the parents (and later, the child herself) want to spend a fair bit of time informing others of Madelon’s history.

    It’s an interesting choice for name of the day nonetheless, and I appreciate the time you take to track the history of use of names both popular and obscure. And now that I’ve officially de-lurked I may comment more often! 🙂

    1. Thanks for de-lurking, Havoye! 🙂

      And yes, I do think Madelon’s parents must get my reaction a lot … I haven’t worked up the nerve to ask her mother about the origin of her name. Maybe someday …