Thanks to Deanna for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day, and to Mills for requesting an update.
The Latin pratum means meadow. While it’s not obvious, Prairie is of French origin. The Latin word became praerie in Old French, before evolving to the French prairie – which means exactly what it does in English today: meadow or grassland.
A similar term existed in Middle English. But today, the word is used almost exclusively to refer to North American land.
The term is especially used in the Mississippi River Valley or central North America, even though similar grassy flatland is found elsewhere. (Think of the Argentine Pampas, as well as the steppes of Eurasia.)
Prairie dogs are ground squirrels found from Canada to Mexico. Back in the day, a covered wagon was sometimes called a prairie schooner, transporting settlers to the American west. And then there’s the architectural style called Prairie School, a cousin to the Arts and Crafts Movement. Frank Lloyd Wright pioneered the style, though many late nineteenth century and early twentieth century architects embraced its ideals.
LITTLE HOUSE on the PRAIRIE
All of this makes the baby name Prairie something of an Americana pick – specific to the US, and all wrapped up in the nation’s history and culture.
There’s also the beloved children’s book series, turned long-running television show, known as Little House on the Prairie. Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder,
The eight-book series memorably recounts pioneer life, first in Wisconsin, and later in Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota.
For television purposes, it’s the small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota that serves as the Ingalls’ family home.
The stories take place between the 1870s and 1890s; the books were published between 1932 and 1943; and the television series debuted in 1974 and ran through 1982.
Frequent re-runs and the books’ prominent place in children’s literature mean that it’s probably familiar to most parents today. However, that’s not as true for the next generation. And a child named Prairie in the 2020s would probably have to seek out the stories.
PURE PRAIRIE LEAGUE
Country rock developed in the late 1960s and early 70s. Think Buffalo Springfield and Bob Dylan, and later, Emmylou Harris and the Eagles. Eventually, it overlapped with Southern rock.
Pure Prairie League, formed in the 1970, borrowed its name from a 1939 Errol Flynn movie titled Dodge City. Flynn played a cowboy who cleans up a lawless frontier town. The Pure Prairie League were a women’s temperance union, advocating to ban alcohol.
The band had a string of hit in the 1970s, and while they’ve faded from the spotlight, their sound still lends a little something to the baby name Prairie.
Speaking of the 1970s, the world met a bright pink, little girl Muppet on Sesame Street in 1971. Her name? Prairie Dawn.
Muppet lore says that the character took her name from an actress named Prairie Dorn.
The seven year old Muppet isn’t among the most famous of the long-running show’s characters. But she’s a steady member of the cast, featured in segments across generations.
The average American kid has almost certainly seen Seasme Street – at least in fragments – which makes Prairie feel more like a name than it otherwise might.
PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
And then there’s Garrison Keillor’s long-running A Prairie Home Companion. Minnesota Public Radio’s variety show became world-famous thanks to Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon.” It’s a fictional town set in central Minnesota, “out there on the edge of the prairie,” as every segment started.
As with the band and the books, it strengthened Prairie’s image as rural and solidly Midwestern.
Besides the Muppet, another fictional character answered to the name.
Thomas Pynchon set his 1990 novel Vineland in 1984 California. The main character is an aging hippie; his daughter, Prairie, is a central figure.
While Pynchon’s tale is pure fiction, it turns out that his name choice fit.
BY the NUMBERS
Prairie debuted in the US popularity data for baby girl names in the year 1973, with five births.
By 1977, that number had reached 22. Pure Prairie League was riding a wave of success, and Prairie Dawn was established on Sesame Street.
The name fell in use for a while, but has recently reversed. In both 2021 and 2022, 30 girls received the name.
While most nature names are potentially gender neutral, Prairie is used almost exclusively for girls. Because Prairie and Laprairie are sometimes last names, it’s possible a male Prairie or two will be found in the historical record.
WARMTH and GRACE
With Meadow ranking in the US Top 1000, it’s easy to imagine Prairie gaining in use.
It’s a name that exudes warmth and perhaps innocence, and a certain gracefulness, too. No doubt life on the prairie can be brutal, but this name suggests a gentle summer day.
The baby name Prairie blends inspiration from the natural world and American history, too.
Perhaps it’s a bit too on-the-nose for a Kansas or Oklahoma farmer to consider. But most nature names speak to parents’ love of the outdoors. Prairie fits that trend perfectly.
For families finding Autumn and Willow too popular, the baby name Prairie has potential.
SIBLINGS for PRAIRIE
So what might Prairie’s sister or brother be named?
Nature names are an obvious choice. Heath and River for a boy; Juniper or Sage for a girl.
Americana choices like Bridger and Boone, Sojourner and Indie have potential.
Or maybe simply rare names: Brace, Darrow, Lander, and Shaw for a brother; Avalon, Dinah, Hettie, or even Tallulah for a sister.
What do you think of the baby name Prairie?
First published on August 21, 2012, this post was revised and re-published on September 11, 2023.