We’re celebrating the US Top Ten this week, and our Baby Name of the Day is the regal Isabella.
Isabella is sometimes listed as a variant of Elizabeth. This is somewhere a vast oversimplification.
In the Old Testament, Elizabeth was the mother of John the Baptist. In Hebrew, her name was closer to Elisheba. She was a righteous woman, long childless, who delivered John late in life. Also known as St. Elizabeth, she’s honored in many faith traditions.
Elizabeth became Elisabet and Elisabel in Occitan, a romance language that’s rare today, but once would have been familiar as a language of poetry and song.
Chances are she lost her -el thanks to a mistake. Read Elisabel as el Isabel, the Isabel – and the el seems unnecessary. Or maybe it was just the same phenomenon at work today – Lizbeth and Liesel are both nicknames formed by dropping the first letter.
By the 1100s, Isabel was in use throughout Europe, but various forms of the name were used interchangeably. King Philip II of France married Isabella of Hainault in 1180. Her seal reads Elizabez.
Royal marriages brought the name to England. In the 1200s, Isabella of Angouleme married King John of England. In the 1300s, Isabella of France married Edward II.
It’s clear that Isabel was more popular before Elizabeth I ascended the throne, and lost ground afterwards. But there were plenty of prominent Elizabeths before Henry’s youngest child came to reign, so it seems the young queen accelerated an existing trend, rather than causing one.
Fast forward to the United States, where both names were popular from 1880 through 1948, though Elizabeth was long favored. A handful of notables, like philanthropist and patron of the arts Isabella Stewart Gardner, have kept the name in the spotlight. But by the 1950s she was headed towards obscurity.
Then came 1990, the year of Isabella’s triumphant return to the US Top 1000, and the beginning of her meteoric rise to the #1 spot.
What explains it? Remember Isabella Stewart Gardner? The Boston museum bearing her name was the site of a famous – and still unsolved – art heist in March of 1990.
But that’s the least of it. Isabella was at the center of a trifecta – any one of these alone can popularize a name:
- Isabella Fiorella Elettra Giovanna Rossellini, daughter of screen legend Ingrid Bergman and filmmaker Roberto Rossellini made her first American film in 1985, and scored an indie hit with 1987’s Blue Velvet.
- Days of our Lives gave the name to a character in 1989, one who endured the usual soap opera trials and tribulations – committed to an asylum, unearthed family secrets, wrecked marriage when an ex returned from the grave, etc.
- In December 1992, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman welcomed their daughter, Isabella Jane.
How could Isabella be anything other than a hit?
She ranked #894 in 1990, #174 in 1995, and #84 by 1998. She reached #1 in 2009, and stayed there in 2010, before slipping to #3 by 2012.
What does that mean for Isabella today? She’s a graceful classic, rich with history, no doubt. But in English, Elizabeth is the evergreen choice, while Isabella has been subject to the tides of fashion.
She’s still plenty popular at the moment, but Isabella could be following elaborates like Alexandra out of vogue. But no worries – Isabella will always make a comeback.