Our Baby Name of the Day was inspired by this movie.
CONSTANT … AND CLEVER
We first heard this name in the ancient world. Faithful wife to Odysseus, she waits at home while he spends a decade adventuring following the Trojan War. He’s gone so long that many assume he must have perished, leaving Penelope a wealthy widow. Potential suitors gather, but she keeps them at arm’s length by weaving – and then, each night, carefully unraveling – a burial shroud.
All ends well – her tactics put off her would-be pursuers until Odysseus could return and prove his identity.
In Greek, penelops means duck, so that’s one possible origin for Penelope. Another is pene – threads, making this name mean weaver.
The latter image endures.
ULYSSES, TAKE TWO
The name appears in small numbers over the years – just six or eight girls named Penelope annually.
And then, it rose in use during the 1910s and 20s.
One possible reasons: a British ship in service during the first World War might’ve made just enough headlines to inspire parents. Other light cruisers from the era bore similar names from myth.
From 1918 to 1920, James Joyce published Ulysses as a serial; the novel followed in 1922. From 1922 to 1926, Penelope ranked in the US Top 1000.
Joyce’s take on the ancient tale reinvents Ulysses and Penelope as Leopold and Molly Bloom. Modernist literature seems an unlikely inspiration for names, but it might have been just enough to raise Penelope’s stature more.
Heading into the middle of the twentieth century, the name must have been seen as quirky, literary, maybe a little bit British.
- In the 1930s and 40s, Penelope Dudley-Ward, daughter of socialite Freda Dudley Ward, became an actor and appeared in a series of films.
- The 1940s also gave us comic strip Penny, featuring a teeanged Penelope Mildred Pringle. It would run through 1970.
- 1947’s Angel and the Badman featured Gail Russel as Penelope, nursing John Wayne’s gunfighter character back to health. She eventually convinces him to abandon his violent ways.
- British actor Penelope Horner enjoyed success in movies and television beginning in the 1950s.
- There’s also Penelope Pitstop, a member of the Hanna-Barbera Wacky Races gang who went on to get her own show in 1969. Miss Pitstop sometimes seemed like a damsel-in-distress, but she usually did her own rescuing.
- Natalie Wood played the title role in 1966’s screwball comedy-caper Penelope, about a fabulously dressed banker’s wife with a penchant for thievery. A box office disappointment, it might not have influenced many parents.
- The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” isn’t a person; it’s a street, a real one. But it sounds almost like a girl’s name, and by the 1970s, rock promoter Pennie Lane adopted the name. Kate Hudson played a fictional version of Lane in 2000’s Almost Famous.
All together, it kept the name ranked in the US Top 1000 from 1935 through 1975.
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY REVIVAL
Almost Famous came out in 2000, giving us Kate Hudson as Penny Lane. Hudson earned an Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe for the role.
The next year, Penelope almost doubled in use.
It’s not all about Kate. Chloe and Zoe were fast-rising members of the Top 100 in the year 2000.
But Hollywood probably gets credit for the name’s rise. After all, in 2001 Spanish actress Penelope Cruz gained fame stateside. appearing in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Blow, and Vanilla Sky. Her career continued to flourish, and by 2008, she’d added an Academy Award to her impressive resume.
Another silver screen boost came in 2006. Christina Ricci played the title role in Penelope, a film by Reese Witherspoon. It wasn’t exactly a smash, but the quirky tale – and twist of a happy ending – gained a following.
Then came a string of high profile birth announcements: Tina Fey’s younger daughter, in 2011; Kourtney Kardashian’s firstborn in 2012.
By 2013, the name entered the US Top 100 for the first time ever, at #56. As of 2017, it reached #24.
Back in 2010, I wrote: “If you’re looking for a name for your daughter, Penelope is a strong choice. But proceed with caution – it might also be an increasingly popular one.”
That’s proven true.
Along the way, Penelope has shed that quirky-cool, eccentric-British vibe that it carried through the twentieth century. Today, it’s a girl next door pick, bouncing and sparky, but with the steadfast original Penelope lending it some weight.
Factor in nicknames galore, and it’s no surprise this name appeals to a growing number of families.
If you don’t mind the possibility that your daughter’s name will repeat, it’s a fun and fascinating choice, as lengthy as Olivia, as vibrant as Zoe, and with so many stories to tell.
Would you consider this name for a daughter? With or without a nickname?
This post originally ran on March 9, 2008. A substantial revision was posted in August 2010 as part of rerun week. A special thanks to Fran for suggesting this one! Additional revisions followed on May 9, 2020.