She’s a literary invention famously worn by a noble dog.
Thanks to Fran for suggesting Perdita as our Baby Name of the Day.
Perdita’s meaning is obvious to anyone with a tiny bit of romance language know-how. There’s pain perdu for breakfast, possibly with Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington performing jazz standard “Perdido” in the background. In Latin, perditus means lost. While the English word lost derives from an unrelated Germanic root, many other European languages use a form of perditus.
Shakespeare gets credit for inventing the name in The Winter’s Tale. When the play begins, Perdita is a blameless infant, born to the imprisoned Queen Hermione. Dad is the King of Sicilia, and he’s convinced the missus strayed.
The king is dead wrong, but he won’t see reason. Instead, he orders his newborn daughter abandoned. In a literary twist, the babe is discovered and raised by shepherds in a foreign land. Despite her seemingly humble origins, Perdita grows up to be a looker, and catches the eye of a prince. Prince Florizel flees with Perdita rather than give her up for a better-born bride. After many twists and turns, Perdita learns her true identity, and the couple lives happily ever after.
The most famous Perdita was born just plain Mary Darby, in late eighteenth century England. Mary took to the stage and won fame for playing the role of Perdita. Not unlike her character, Darby caught the eye of a ruler. The actress would become the mistress of the future King George IV.
Not only did she achieve fame in the theater, she became a trend-setting fashionista, and a well-established writer. Long after her love affair with the monarch ended, she penned poems, novels, plays, and essays, too, many with messages of empowerment for women.
This makes Perdita an obscure literary gem with a feminist twist, even if her meaning is unfortunate.
But then there’s the Perdita who might come to mind, and while she’s equally literary, she’s of the four-legged variety.
Dodie Smith penned The Hundred and One Dalmations in 1956. She created many of the enduring characters, including the villainous Cruella de Vil and dalmation daddy Pongo. Walt Disney adapted the book in 1961. Pongo and Perdita’s fifteen pups are dog-napped by Cruella, and after a daring rescue of all of Cruella’s canine captives, it is decided that Pongo, Perdita, their fifteen little ones, plus the additional 84 puppies rescued from the clutches of Cruella will all take a country house together.
The 1996 live action adaptation and 2000 sequel might have made Perdita more familiar, but the pup answers to Perdy. It is often spelled Purdy, as if the dog is named for the Southern slang version of pretty.
Real life uses have been few, though she does appear in US Census records. Actress Perdita Weeks played Mary Tudor on Showtime’s The Tudors. There’s also Perdita Avery, seen on a number of BBC series over the last few years.
Perdita’s literary cachet is considerable. Peri and Didi both seem like possible short forms. And yet her sound doesn’t quite seem current.
That could make for a great find, of course – a name borrowed from an admirable Shakespearean character that’s not likely to reach the US Top 100. If that’s what you’re after, Perdita is one to consider.