English: Vanessa, 1868, by John Everett Millais
English: Vanessa, 1868, by John Everett Millais (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s a literary invention and one of the Cosby kids.

Thanks to Fran for suggesting Vanessa as our Baby Name of the Day.

Rearranging the sounds and syllables in a loved one’s given name is often a recipe for a mess of a name.  But if you have the talent of Jonathan Swift, it could work.
We remember Swift for Gulliver’s Travels, but he also penned “Cadenus and Vanessa” back in 1713.  Vanessa referred to Esther Vanhomrigh, a woman sometimes called Swift’s friend, and sometimes his lover.  Swift cobbled together the Van from her surname and Essa from Esther.  Their romance ended badly –  he was more than two decades older, and ultimately threw her over for another woman, also named Esther – he called her Stella.
Even though Cadenus and Vanessa isn’t required reading today, it was well known at one point.  Johan Fabricius gave the name to a type of butterfly in the late 1700s.  John Everett Millais painted his portrait of Vanessa in 1868, both inspired by the poem.

But what takes Vanessa from an eighteenth century poem to the US Top 100 by 1977?

Some give the nod to actress Vanessa Redgrave, born in 1937 to actor father Michael Redgrave.  She might have boosted Vanessa, but she’s not the kickstarter.  After all, Vanessa had been used occasionally over the years – Virginia Woolf’s sister was the successful painter Vanessa Bell, and Hugh Walpole published a novel called Vanessa in 1933.

Credit goes to another actress, Vanessa Brown.  She was born Smylla in Austria.  She signed with RKO and was initially renamed Tessa, but by the late 1940s was Vanessa.  She played minor figures in some major flicks, like 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and a 1950 Tarzan movie.  A long career in television followed. HugoWinterhalter even wrote a lively little piece of music titled “Vanessa.”

Then came CBS soap opera Love of Life, which debuted in 1951.  The main characters were sisters – the virtuous Vanessa, and the scheming Meg.  Between the actress and the soap opera heroine, Vanessa climbed at a rapid pace.

More influences followed:

  • A 1958 Samuel Barber opera titled Vanessa debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958.
  • Vanessa L. Williams survived a scandal as Miss America and went on to a successful career in music and acting.
  • Young actress Vanessa Hudgens starred in the successful High School Musical franchise.
  • Vanessa Abrams is a character from the Gossip Girl series.
Throw in a handful of comic book characters and plenty of women by the name and Vanessa starts to feel like a modern staple.  That’s especially true thanks to Vanessa Cosby, the fictional Huxtable daughter from the 1980s television classic.  The character was born in 1973, making it a plausible pick.  But the show’s broadcast – 1984 to 1992 – coincides with Vanessa’s peak of popularity.
Today Vanessa is fading slightly, down to #118, or about 2,600 girls.  That’s not obscurity, and she’s inspired spin-offs, like Janessa.
While she’s not a fresh or unusual choice in 2012, Vanessa has the feel of a name that is a solid choice – feminine, literary, and likely to stick around.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I would also like to add to the list of famous people:

    1. Vanessa Carlton – an American singer-songwriter and musician
    2. Vanessa Marcil – an American actress
    3. Vanessa Paradis – a French singer, model and actress
    4. Vanessa Lachey (née Minnillo) – an American television personality, television host, model, and actress.

  2. I named my baby girl, born in 2012, Vanessa Rose. I should point out that I am not African American and neither are the few Vanessas I know. I also do not see it as an 80s name. Although the popularity of the name peaked in the mid-1980s, Vanessa was never popular enough to be linked to that decade exclusively. It’s peak was #42 most popular in 1985. Since then, it has remained in the top 100 names until 2010. I would describe it as a bold name that is also sophisticated and arty. I think it’s cute on a little girl and classy on a woman. It’s not common, but definitely well known. I hope my daughter loves it as much as I do!

  3. Yes, it’s arty….my best Vanessa is a childhood friend, now in her 40s, who works in the film industry.

  4. A great name!!! Not preppy to me, preppy is way more flat and dull than this. To me it seems more African-American if anything.

  5. Vanessa is all preppy ’80s to me, although the one I know IRL doesn’t fit that description.

  6. As my son is a huge Phineas and Ferb fan, I would like to add the character of Vanessa Doofenshmirtz. She is the beautiful, jaded, goth/punk rocker daughter of a evil scientist.

    I like Vanessa very much, but it does have a slightly dated ’80s feel to me. That’s most likely due to The Cosby Show character, as I’ve never actually met a Vanessa.

  7. Ah, Vanessa, the name I can’t escape. It is my husband’s #1 very favorite girl name and it is mentioned in every naming conversation. Plus my mother is a biologist who researches insects, especially butterflies, so she has not-so-subtly suggested this name as a way to honor her. I see the appeal and I don’t dislike it, but I’m not completely sold yet for our family. Maybe with a cute nickname? But what?

    Now, my second debate is whether to show this article to my husband and my mother since it will prove them right about how great Vanessa is. : )

    1. Colleen, not to pressure you but here are a few nicknames that could work:

      Vanna, Nessa, Nessie, Essa, Essie, Ness, Vinnie, Vee, Annie and maybe more. 🙂

    2. Well … there are a gajillion butterfly names … it doesn’t HAVE to be Vanessa …

      1. My favourite butterfly names off the top of my head are probably Julia and Luna. (Luna counts, right, it’s a moth?)

  8. Vanessa is a gorgeous name, a friend of mind has it on her shortlist along with Giselle for her coming baby girl and I’m so glad she has picked out a refreshing offbeat choice out the various Olivias, Isabellas and Chloes.