Esme: Baby Name of the Day

Front cover (1960 edition)''

Front cover (1960 edition)” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on May 23, 2008.  It was substantially revised and re-posted on October 22, 2012.

The bookshelf gave us this name, and the bookshelf could take her away, too.

Thanks to Natalie for suggesting today’s Baby Name of the Day: Esme.

Esme first surfaces as a masculine name in sixteenth century Scotland, derived from the Old French esmer – to respect or admire.  The French and Scots had a close diplomatic relationship for centuries, from the 1200s into the sixteenth century, so French names aren’t foreign in Scotland.

The first notable bearer was a Scottish nobleman, an adviser to James IV.  Though he lost his position in political turmoil, his descendants held the title Duke of Lennox for generations, and several were also called Esme.  Other unusual names: LudovicGabrielle– suggest that the family were daring namers in their day.

Strictly speaking, those early men were Esmé, with the diacritical mark.  Women would have been Esmée – though I cannot find any.

The named remained masculine – and very rare – into the 1800s.  The name wasn’t any more common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but Esme definitely switched from masculine to feminine by mid-century.

In 1950 JD Salinger’s short story For Esmé With Love and Squalor appeared in The New Yorker.  His Esmé was an orphan, a young woman of extraordinary poise beyond her years.  The story remains among the most popular of Salinger’s works.  A few years later, William Gaddis used the name for a character in his debut novel, The Recognitions.

While the name lost its accent, it is typically pronounced EZ may, though in our Zoe/Chloe/Penelope era, you might meet a few who prefer EZ mee.

Besides her French origins, Esme could be short for the elaborate Esmeralda, the Spanish word for emerald, and a departure in another literary direction.

Esme has been quietly catching on since the 1990s:

  • Actor Anthony Edwards has an Esme, sister to Wallis and Poppy.
  • Katey Sagal chose Esme Louise for her daughter.
  • Michael J. Fox has three girls, including Esme Annabelle.

Esme caught on just as Emma and Emily were approaching their zenith.  She seemed like a sophisticated literary pick, frills-free but still feminine, unexpected but not too out there.  The numbers of baby Esmes were growing.

And then came Twilight.  For all that Stephenie Meyer is sometimes credited with boosting names like Bella and Jacob, it really isn’t so.  The names were already epidemic, chart-topping favorites.  Meyer has an ear for names that we are likely to favor today, regardless of historic authenticity.  Census records confirm that women were named Esme in the late 1800s, which tracks with vampire matriarch Esme Cullen’s story.  But it isn’t a very likely choice.

Esme entered the US Top 1000 in 2010 at #921, a long-awaited arrival.  But just as more parents were shortlisting Esme as an unusual possibility for a daughter, others were avoiding her, worried that they’d be asked if they chose the name from the vampire romance.

Still, 258 girls received in the name in 2011, ranking her #981 in the US.  Esmee, Esmae, and Ezme are also in use.

Overall, Esme is a literary choice with a lovely meaning and great style.  If you can overlook a few references to vampires, Esme remains a standout choice for a daughter.

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To me Esme is hipster rather than vampiric.

I remember a long time ago reading a short story by Saki, in which a woman semi-adopts a dog (?) and calls it Esme – because it is equally suitable for either a male or female. I think the story was written in the early 20th century. No note on pronunciation, alas!

I notice a lot of people writing Esm – did something get cut off by the new blogging platform???

My first encounter with the name Esme was on a professor’s dog! I wonder if she was inspired by the short story? She pronounced the dog’s name ess-may, which is how it’s generally pronounced in Canada, I suppose due to our French influence.

It seems unlikely because (not trying to give away too many spoilers) Esme wasn’t exactly a dog, and his or her behaviour wasn’t socially acceptable! Saki had a very dark sense of humour. I suppose it might have been the inspiration though.

I am vaguely familiar with the ultimate outcome of the story, although I’ve not actually read it (I find I have to be in a very particular mood to read short stories — they’re so often dark!). I used the word *inspiration* somewhat advisedly. I doubt it was an actual homage. However, I can’t really see this particular professor being unfamiliar with the tale since she was quite widely read and specialised in British Lit.

It seems implausible that an English Lit professor wouldn’t have read “Esme”, which is a widely-known story by a classic English writer.

Maybe your professor has a dark sense of humour too! Or yeah, just liked the idea of a dog named Esme.

I like Esmée but hesitate about Esme. A long-running Australian drama series (“A Country Practice” which was set in a rural town) had a character called Miss [Esme] Watson, a frumpy whingy woman, and I can’t dissociate the name from her. The only pronunciation for me is EZ-may. That’s how Miss Watson’s name was pronounced, btw.

This how I see this name:

Esme (no accent, pronounced [ez-mee] or [ez-may – faux French pronunciation]) : short form of Esmeralda that works fine on its own, like Jack or Elle.

Esmé (pronounced [ez-MÉ]): Scottish/French masculine name, the feminine form being Esmée.
If you’re going with the French accent, follow French grammar, people! It’s a basic rule: -é is masculine, -ée is feminine – like René/Renée, Aimé/Aimée, Edmé/Edmée. Sorry, but taking names from other languages and misuse them is huge a pet peeve of mine :/

That being said, I find Esme cute and Esmée very elegant and romantic.

I have recently fallen in love with the name Esme! I especially like Genevieve or Juliette for middle names.
I know the blog was posted in 08, and Esme just entered the top 1000 names ss list in the states in 10 – so I really don’t think it will ever be a common name. More common, maybe, but I doubt it will fall into the top 250 in the US.
Good choice with possibly some future pronounciation corrections – but I love it as EZ-may :). Sweet for a child and classy for an adult.

I don’t mind Esmae, and I think it does sidestep the problem of pronunciation rather neatly. The question is whether Esme will eventually be so popular that your daughter doesn’t appreciate having a different spelling of her name. BUT should that come to pass, chances are we’ll see Ezmi and Esmie and Esmee, so she’ll have to spell it anyway. The more I think about it, the more I like it!

My wife and I are going with Esmae for our little girl. We like the pronunciation “ES-May” and felt this took away any uncertainty. Thoughts?

My daughter is named Esme (with accent…pronounced Es-may). I don’t understand how people can pronounce it wrong! With accent…pronounced Es-may/Ez-may and without accent…pronounced Es-mee/Ez-mee. I always thought the accent was there to change the pronounciation from Es-mee/Ez-mee to Es-may/Ez-may! Though I have read today that Esme (with accent) is indeed the male version and the female version is spelt the same way but with an extra E. Is my daughters name spelt right? Should it be Esmee or Esme? With/without accent? xx

Katy, are you in the US? American English typically doesn’t acknowledge diacritical marks. As I understand it, some states do accommodate them, but most of the time, Esme is just Esme – no accents available. (This must craze parents who are choosing a name from their native, other-than-English language, only to have their child’s name appear to be misspelled on official paperwork. I know one parent who is constantly inserting accents over her son’s name.) Tildes, umlauts, and cedillas tend to be retained, but acute and grave accents, like in Esme or cafe, tend to be dropped. I drop them here myself, because I have to pull up an extra menu to insert them – not a world-ending step, but I type REALLY fast. And the menu? Isn’t fast.

Then there’s the diacritical-marks-as-confetti phenomenon – Raven-Symone has a few in her name that have no impact on pronunciation. Or think heavy metal umaluts … they’re added for visual style, not as pronunciation guides. Add in that many of us aren’t familiar with the impact of diacritical marks, and I feel reasonably comfortable not using them. (I suspect I’m pretty average – I know what the French/Spanish/German ones indicate, but anything less common, I’m guessing. Like the

My name is Esmeralda and the truth is that since I was a child I’ve always sort of hated my name. The thing is that it is so long and although I think that it sounds nice and the meaning is also nice, it is a very uncommon name in Spain (I’m Spanish, by the way). Over the years, I’ve got used to it. My friends and family called me Esme so that it’s shorter. It’s funny because since I’ve moved to England everybody seems to love my name, they say that is very beatiful and exotic and I haven’t found a single person who has trouble pronouncing Esme or Esmeralda. It is so nice to see that there are so many people that love my name because in Spain, what you mostly get is: “well, it’s a nice name, but it’s just too long and weird”.

My wife is six months and we have disagreed about every girls name suggested by either of us. However, we have agreed on Esme (One E with the accent) and will be pronouncing it Es-may. Its such a nice simple name yet not that common which is what we were both after…….In the meantime, we have to hope that the baby is a girl!!!

Our daughter is Esme (no accent and pronounced Es-mee). That’s the way it’s been pronounced in the north of England and Scotland for many a moon. She’s swift to correct anyone who poncifies it to the Esmay pronunciation.

I named my daughter Esme without the accent and we pronounce it EZ-mee – she was named after a British great-aunt and that is how her name was pronounced. I think it is a lovely name, but now with the popularity of the Twilight series people insist on pronouncing my daughter’s name Es-may.

Not really, MrDifficult. Pronunciation is subject to changes over time and regional accents. Even the most classic names can sound slightly different in different parts of the English-speaking world. Some pronunciations change dramatically over the course of just a few decades. Nina used to sound like the number nine, with an -a ending; now Nina almost always rhymes with Gina and Tina. Phonetic transparency counts – I don’t think it is wise to spell your child’s name Jean and insist it sounds like Jane. But there’s room for interpretation – and deviation – with a relative rarity like Esme.

I am an Esme without the accent and people always pronounce my name wrong, well… wrong as far as i am concerned.
You see, my mum chose my name and she has always pronounced it Ezmee
so when i come across someone who pronounces it Ezmay i become a little confused, especially when they are adament that i am pronouncing it wrong 😐
I love my name! Deffinately prefere it pronounced Ezmee though!

annoys me when people pronounce my daughter as es may as well… esme! its so simple like. love the name… my daughter is now nine an she loves her name 🙂 an ‘means it is to love’ … which just defines my wee princess 🙂 … annoys me that some people don’t like the name… I can’t understand why as it is beautiful 🙂 xxx

Honestly i keep saying the name over and over in my head….Es-may, Ez-mee, Es-mee…and i still don’t get the sudden facination over it. i just DO NOT like the way it sounds. No offense of course. It’s just one of those names that might be a bit too…progressive for a southern belle like myself.


My baby girl is called Esmee. We actually pronounce it Es-mee simply because the first Esmee we came across also did that and there fore it feels most “right”. We dont use the accent simply to save her a life time of trying to get it jotted down everywhere.I agree with ParisTexas :americans don’t get it at all, at least not to start with, while in England the reaction was more of “what a lovely and traditional name !” I simply love the name because it sounds sweet and it suits whatever age you are. A little funny detail is that our other daughter is called Autumn, a name that americans get but is still slightly different” for english people..(totally opposite from Esmee!)It does seem to be more common now though and I guess it will get a little “boost now when theres an Autumn in the royal family…

my daughter is pronounced es mee as well – don’t like people pronouncing it es may! such a beautiful name an just seems to suits my wee girls quiet subtle, placid endearing nature 🙂 x

Funny how we can love a name, but know that it’s not for us. As someone who grew up with a nickname-proof name (and a very common one, too) I’m not inclined to use something as simple as Esme – though I love it. Should my husband ever set up the aquarium he keeps threatening, I’ll probably use it for a fish. 😉

I think it is mean of u to say you would call your fish esme.. silly. I am offended by it as my beautiful little girl is called esme an looks nothing like a fish :/

I love names with a simple, breezy yet distinctive style and Esme certainly fits that bill, it gets extra bonus points too for being relatively unusual and little used too. I’ve only ever met one of Kindergarten age. She was a creative and quietly spirited little girl who suited her name perfectly. However and this is the crux, I just can’t quite picture myself using the name Esme. In short, Esme is a name that I would love to love but for some reason or another it remains consigned to my ‘extended’ list…

That’s such a good point – the accent does not officially exist in American English, and you’re absolutely right that it can be a headache.

The only Esme that I know is not quite kindergarten aged, but her parents don’t use the accent at all. No one mangles her name. ni KAY would be a burden, indeed!

Esme is so cute! It sounds very sophisticated and sweet, but appropriate for an adult. I like it best without the accent, because one of my friends was named Nik

I named my daughter Esme… it is so beautiful an just suits her to a tee 🙂 … she is so petite an cute big brown eyes and fair curly hair – couldn’t imagine calling her anything else an glad I didn’t… she is now 9 years old an loves her name which is a relief!! I hope it doesn’t become popular she I live anyhow lol – though a wee girl in the next street is called esme an she is 7…. her parents sooooo copied me :/ haha x

It is tricky, because the derivation is not from the French we know and love, but from the Norman French that came to Scotland in the 12th century by way of England.

The Normans didn’t invade Scotland. Instead, King David I, ruler of Scotland from 1124 to 1153, introduced Norman-style administrative reforms, founded monasteries and made land grants to a number of French/Anglo-French knights. He himself was born in Scotland, but spent his formative years in England – which, of course, had been invaded back in 1066. The outcome is that David was a Norman by preference, style and habit, if not by birth.

So one can only assume that the French that gave us Esme had its peculiarities. It also stands to reason that it was fashionable, especially among the Southern Scots where the language held on longer.

Esme was never common in Scotland, either – even among families of Norman descent. Most of the common names were recognizable to our ears, even if they have quirky spellings – one study of 13/14th century names found 13 men called William, with ten variant spellings, including Villiame and Williame. Shades of modern baby naming!

So while the name’s early appearance as the given name of Esme Stewart, born in 1542 and eventually the Duke of Lennox, is clear in the historical record, the matter of the language that gave us his name is murky indeed.

Still, if one is eager for a meaning, it’s a defensible definition – if not an entirely satisfactory backstory. 🙂