She’s a nickname for a fading classic – and for some parents, she’s enough to fill up a birth certificate.
Thanks to Anna and Sophie for suggesting Tess as our Baby Name of the Day.
If Tess feels like she stands on her own, perhaps it is because of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 literary triumph Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Hardy’s Tess is tragic, though she’s virtuous, even brave, when circumstances continually turn against her. She’s mostly addressed as just plain Tess, but at one point, her suitor addresses her as “Mistress Teresa d’Urberville.”
Tess is usually short for Theresa, Teresa, or Therese, but she could also stand in for:
- Esther, Estelle, Estella;
- Modern inventions like Tessalyn or Tessianne;
- Or, more commonly, Tessa.
Just like many parents find Sadie or Sally too much of a departure from her original source, Sarah – or would never name a daughter Mary but call her Molly – Tess’s connection to Theresa has weakened over the years.
In fact, Theresa – wore by saints and royals aplenty – is fading. From the 1920s through the 1970s, she ranked in the US Top 100. Tracy, Tracey, Tracie, and other traditional diminutives had a good run in the 1960s and 70s, but have also faded. By 2010, Theresa barely remained in the rankings, coming in at just #940.
Meanwhile, Tessa has been picking up steam, first appearing in the Top 1000 in 1964 and coming in at #221 last year. The spare Tess ranked #810, suggesting that parents don’t quite see her as solidly established as other diminutives, like Kate.
Plenty of fictional characters have answered to the name, including:
- Tess Trueheart, the love interest, and eventually wife, of comic strip detective Dick Tracy;
- Working Girl’s brainy Tess McGill, who got the job and the guy in the 1988 hit movie starring Melanie Griffith;
- The head angel on Touched by an Angel was called Tess;
- On Roswell, a prime time soap with an alien twist, Tess was one of the part-human hybrids;
- Shirley MacLaine wore the name in Guarding Tess, as fictional former First Lady Tess Carlisle;
- In the Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 12 movies, Julia Roberts plays Tess Ocean, the wife of mastermind Danny;
- The cast of Camp Rock included an aspiring singer called Tess.
The list is incomplete, especially if you factor in women named Theresa who answer to Tess. There’s also Tessie, the theme song of the Boston Red Sox. There are actually two Tessies – a 1902 song from a Broadway musical, and a 2004 single by the Dropkick Murphys.
It is tempting to link Tess to the Greek tesseres – four. There’s also the Cornish Tressa – which literally means third. You could use Tressa as a formal name for Tess, too.
If you’re disappointed that Jane and Kate are mainstream, you could turn towards Tess. She’s short and perhaps a bit incomplete, but the literary Tess gives her just enough of an anchor.