Baby Name of the Day: Tess

The Church From "Tess of the D’urberville...

The church from Tess of the D’urbervilles;Image by neilalderney123 via Flickr

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;
  • Contessa;
  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


I love all these Tess names, which we’re considering as an honour name for my partner’s Italian grandmother, Teresa nn Terry
I think Tess can stand alone but Tessa is nice too. Thessaly is awesome but probably too unsual for us. Our front runner is science inspired Tesla nn Tess.
Just hope it doesnt sound too much like a brand name before we get to use it!

I love Teresa and would happily nickname her Tessa/Tess, ala Dick Tracy but we already know a Tessa/Tess. She’s my Josie’s newest bestest friend. Because we were powerless for 4 days, we spent those day in the Holiday Inn, which *did* have power, and we met her and her siblings & Dad there (They go to the same school but are in different classes). Sweet girl. Makes me like Tess all by herself, which is what she almost exclusively goes by.

It’s a light & sweet name.

I also love Theresa as a name, especially (only) when spelled with an ‘h’. Tess makes a great nickname, but Theresa is an elegant full name.

Full disclosure: it’s my sister’s name and I always wished that it were mine.

Too nicknamey for me, and the name doesn’t appeal to me anyway. But I really like Tessa and I think it can stand on its own pretty well. Theresa and Therese are really growing on me as well, and I like Tessa as a nickname for those. Now that I think about it, I know quite a few Tesses under 18 and none of them, to my knowledge, are short for anything.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the name Tess. Love it. Tessa is okay, too, but I find Tess much sweeter. Tessa seems a bit invented, too.

I know two Teresas who go by Terry and Teri. I haven’t known any Teresas who’re nicknamed Tess. But I did know a little girl named Tess years ago. She’s probably 14 now. I remember telling her mom how much I loved the name.

I adore Tess, Tessa, and Tessie, but they are out for two reasons: My brother’s wife is a Contessa, nn Tessa (which is part of the reason I love it, Tessa is a wonderful sister!), and the man had an ex girlfriend named Tessa. So as much as I would love to put Contessa in the middle in honor of my sister, it’s probably a bad plan. I do, however, have a lovely horse named Tesorro Rojo (Spanish, Red Treasure) who goes by Tessie Red. She is an angel!

I think of Tess the same way I think about Nan and Meg. Cute in a casual, retro way… but I’d prefer that it was short for Teresa or my preferred form of the name Theresia.

An acquaintance has a young Theresa — nicknamed Reese. Tess has a lot more spunk.

I’m not a big fan of Tess by itself as a first name (it’s an excellent nickname!), but it has been on my list of possible middles in the past.

Tessa & Tess are absolutely gorgeous! My sister’s middle name is Theresa (first name is Sarah). She was named after our paternal great-grandmother who died shortly before she was born, back in ’88, so nice way to honor both of them. I prefer Tessa as the given name and then I could use Tess as a nickname.

Not so crazy about Teresa/Theresa though, but it’s still pretty.

Thumbs up! 🙂

Correction: Great-grandmother was Regina Theresa, not just Theresa. I always thought it was Theresa until I took another look at my copy of the family tree. But my sister was still named after her. Our dad actually wanted to name her that, but my mom didn’t like it and wanted to name her Sarah (and I kept calling her “baby sister Sarah”. I was under 2 years old then, just turned 2 by the time she was born) so they stuck Theresa in the middle.

Regina runs in my dad’s family too. Paternal grandmother and great-grandmother, and one of my aunts were all Regina’s, except that unlike my great-grandma and aunt, my grandma was born Regina Joan.

I love Theodora too, but I’d be more likely to shorten it to Thea. Tessa works well for it too though, or Tess.

I also like the idea of Elizabeth, Elizaveta (Russian form of Elizabeth) or Elizabete (Latvian form) nn Tessa/Tess, but not crazy about the more obvious long forms like Theresa/Teresa/Therese.

Only as a nickname for Teresa. (And only spelled that way, even though I’m usually a traditionalist.)

This was on my list for a girl, but my husband vetoed.

One of my cousin’s has a daughter named Tessa Jean. So, while I love this name (Tess, Tessie, and even Tessa), I obviously can’t use it. They had Tessa had picked out when their oldest (who is a boy) was in utero, and I fell in love with it. Of course, little Tessa was almost Elsie, which I also adore. FYI, Tessa’s older siblings are Jude Adam and Millie Claire.

Well, as a partial Arabic speaker, my first thought about Tess is as a nn for Tesneem. I know a few Tesneems and one answers mostly to Tessie.

I find Tess a tad incomplete to stand alone, though I could see it work with a really long surname.

I actually like Tess and Tessa for Theresa. I file Theresa with Susannah and Magdalena: great Biblical names with good nicknames that everyone around me finds hopelessly dated 🙁

I like all of those names! And I have not one, but two acquaintances my age (20s) who answer to Susanna/h. They are classic names, not stuffy, IMO.

Thanks countrylizb, I always forget; because of Mother Theresa the name has a strong religious vibe for me.

@Lauren – it’s my mom (born in the late 50s) who has the most negative reactions to these names, esp Susannah. I guess she grew up with a lot of Susans/Susannahs and Theresas.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Tess — possibly because I know a lovely dog of the name as a child (yes, dog! but she was such a lovely girl!). I much prefer it to Teresa and even Tessa. I quite like the Greek Tethys or Thetis – or even the hippie Quintessence 😉 – as possible ‘long forms.’