She’s an ancient appellation softened over the years, a quintessentially French choice.
Thanks to Kristin for suggesting Madeleine as our Baby Name of the Day.
I’d long assumed that the famous children’s book series by Ludwig Bemelmans was called Madeleine. It takes place in Paris, after all!
But no. Bemelmans’ iconic French schoolgirl was just plain Madeline. The series debuted in 1939. Her name may have been inspired by Mrs. Bemelmans, known as Mimi, but born Madeleine.
More on spelling in a minute.
First, let’s talk about the name’s origin, Mary of Magdala – Mary Magdalene. She appears in the New Testament, a faithful follower of Jesus, by his side for the crucifixion and the resurrection. Somehow she was wrongly classified as a prostitute in the early Middle Ages. She’s no Jezebel, but there’s a hint of scandal around her still.
Magdala was a village of the Sea of Galilee. There are two possible origins for the place name: first, the Hebrew word migdal, tower. Second, in Aramaic it might mean great place – which isn’t so different.
Magdalen, Magdalene and Magdalena endured as given names likely because of the saint, whatever her perceived shortcomings. But her pronunciation changed dramatically. By Chaucer’s time, it was still spelled with a g, but pronounced like our word maudlin. In 1542, Cambridge’s Magdalene College was dedicated. Some records spell it Maudelyn, reflecting the preferred pronunciation.
When does she first lose her g sound? I can’t pin it down, but by the fourteenth century, maudlin meant sorrowful, because Mary Magdalene was often depicted weeping.
It doesn’t appear to have been a common name in the Middle Ages, but she’s not unknown. In Italian, she’s Maddalena, Madlenka in Czech, and Madeleine was a French favorite in the 1920s. Madelon is heard in Dutch and French. Coincidentally, the German word for girl is mädchen, and a regional variant is mädel. Folk etymology sometimes links mädel to the name.
A French sponge cake is called a madeleine, possibly named after a French baker from the 1800s. They feature prominently in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The cakes evoke memories, shading Madeleine with yet more meaning.
Madeline has long been the more popular spelling in the US. Her rise to prominence began in the mid-1980s.
By then, we’d had:
- Titanic survivor Madeleine Astor
- French designer Madeleine Vionnet dressed Hollywood in the 1930s
- Kim Novak’s character, Madeleine, in 1958’s thriller Vertigo
- A Wrinkle in Time launched Madeleine L’Engle’s career in 1962
- 1970s big screen comedienne Madeline Kahn
And, of course, the children’s books.
By 1994, Madeline was in the US Top 100. If you took your cue from Bemelmans, Madeline rhymed with line – literally: In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines … the smallest one was Madeline.
Taking a cue from Caroline/Carolyn, some parents opted for Madelyn. Today she’s the most popular of the spellings, standing at #79, a few paces ahead of Madeline at #85. The -lyn ending eclipsed -line in 2009. Madilyn, reminiscent of Marilyn, comes in at #301. And then there’s Madeleine, ranked #319 in 2011.
Four more spellings chart in the US Top 1000, and there are many more in use.
But Madeleine’s relatively rarity isn’t a problem. It is recognized by many as French, and in our age of Genevieve and Vivienne, that’s a powerfully stylish group.
If sharing the nickname Maddie gives you pause, other options abound: Minnie or Molly, as Kristin suggested. There’s also Mimi, Lena or even Lainey, depending on your pronunciation and spelling choices. (I’d be tempted to use Madelaine to get to Lainey.)
Overall, she’s not a novel choice, but she is an enduring and elegant possibility.
This is such a lovely, timeless name and fits a young girl right up to pensioners. It reminds me of a summer day in a wine grove with sunflowers and a sweet smell f briar on the air.
Our Madeleine Rose was born August 25, 2015. My brother gave her the nickname Leni (Lenny) since I was worried how people would pronounce her name! It’s cute because Lenny is her paternal great grandfather’s name! I like it and I am trying to use it more. I never realized how many Maddie there are! I feel like I hear it everywhere we go now! So many Madison/Madelyn/Madeline!
Madeleine Tiktin says
a beautiful name. Trying to decide between Madeleine and Aveline
Great article (only just found this) I’ve never seen my name written so much on a blog 🙂 My name is spelt the french way Madeleine but I probably should have a little dash (a french accent aigu) over the middle “e” because we pronounce it as Madelaine ( I often get called Madeleen instead).
Growing up my nickname was Madel or Madels (supposedly the french nickname my mum said but upon researching it seems that folk etymology has brought it to the name Madeleine). When I was about 15 I switched to Maddie which I thought sounded better. There were no Maddisons really back then (1994) so it was kind of unique. These days there are HEAPS of Maddisons and Madelines.
As a photographer, I’ve photographed at these three newborn Madeleines in the last year so the pretty french spelling Madeleine must be on the rise 🙂
I love this name. Madeleine is my current favorite spelling, though I did like Madoline for a brief period in my early teens. Before that, and after, actually, Madelaine was my favorite. I still probably like that better but it seems much less familiar to people. I suppose Madeline or Madelyn are the two most people think to use, not Madeleine.
The association I thought of was this mini-series in the 80s about the Civil War called North and South. I believe the love interest of the Patrick Swayze character is named Madeleine. She was a very romantic character, I recall. I can’t remember the name of the actress though.
People keep saying how common the name is, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a Madeleine (any spelling). I may have heard of Maddie, but usually that’s the full name or a nickname for Madison. I guess it depends on who you know.
Well, you’ve “met” me!!!!
You’re right about North & South! Haven’t thought about that in years …
I love Madelaine, mostly because I like the idea of calling a little Madelaine Lainey. 🙂
I almost forgot to mention that i was named after the British actress, Madeleine Carroll. My mom was to have twins, but she did not know our sexes until we were born–so one was to be “Madeleine,” and the other, “Carroll” (or “Carol??”) She ended up w/a boy and a girl, so i got “Madeleine–“I LOVE the spelling, and when i saw “The Thirty Nine Steps (W/A. Hitchcock as its director, on TCM recently), i wished i could be more like HER (the gorgeous actress)!
Then there was the “Madeleine” in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo–“but i am nothing like Kim Novak either!! My mom meant SO well!!!!
It’s a gorgeous name – your mom did well!
Thank you–i totally agree!!!!
My name is Madeline and my sister’s name is Carolyn!
Yes, I was going to mention Madeleine Albright – I can see how parents who dream of having a strong, intelligent, successful daughter might like that association. Though I suspect Moonlighting’s Maddie Hayes might have inspired more parents than Ms. Albright.
I think people forget that the Madeline books were actually a US product, and well, I think the author found the -line easier to rhyme with stuff. Likewise Madeline’s dog’s name, Genevieve, has to be pronounced the American way, jenn-a-veev, in order for it to rhyme properly in the book.
I think Madeleine is a beautiful name, and the cake association just sweetens it that much more ;), but when considering names for my own kids I decided there are far too many little Maddies running around right now and I didn’t feel like adding another one.
I don’t know–i sure am proud of my name….
I have a Madeleine & a Genevieve!
Well, i AM a “Madeleine–” #319.
My mom nicknamed me “Mady(pronounced “MAYdee”)” when i was very little, and the name stuck among my closest friends. She claimed it came from “Madchen(i have no umlaut button on my keyboard to spell it properly!),” which, she said meant “little girl,” and i think also denoted it in a loving way(because of the “chen” suffix).
I LOVE my name and am proud to bear it!! I’ll take #319 ANYTIME!!!!
Good to hear from you – and what a great tale about your nickname!
I love this name. My great-grandmother, born around 1905, was named Madelyn – with that spelling. I didn’t realize until recently how odd that spelling was for that time – or am I wrong?
Oh, no – it wasn’t that odd. In the first decade of the 1900s, the ratio of Madeline to Madelyn was about 10:1. Madeleine was about as popular as Madelyn. Madaline, Madalyn, Madalene, Madelene, Madlyn, Madalin, Madolin, Madolyn, and Madelin were all in use – or at least more than 5 girls received each of the spellings for some year in the early 1900s. The name shows the same spelling variations that we see in Katherine/Catherine/Kathryn. And I’ve heard of a Madalyn from the 1920s or so, so they are definitely out there.
Thanks so much for the info!
Thank you for doing Madeleine! There is also Madeleine of Valois who became Queen of Scots when she married King James V of Scotland, and a river in eastern France named Madeleine. Madeline/Madeleine has been on my various lists since I began compiling them as a child. I was most definitely influenced by Bemelmans and Madeleine L’Engle. Mary Madgalene has long been my favorite saint, as well. All in all, Madeline or Madeleine fits beautifully with our other children. It satisfies all of my insane naming criteria. My favorite combo, for now anyway, is Madeleine Daisy. What gives me pause? Popularity. I can never decide how much it bothers me.
No love for the radiant actress Madeleine Stowe? I’m sure she’s inspired some parents through the years.
Madeleine Tiktin says
And the older actress, madeleine Carroll??
I spent all of the summers of my childhood not far from the Madeline Island Julie refers to. I always thought that I’d use Madeline as a tribute to the delightful memories that I have from the years that I’ve spent there. Unfortunately, it’s just way too common for us now and I know of a few too many little girls with some spelling of this name. Madeline may end up as a middle name maybe or just a little piece of very pleasant memories.
Growing up, my neighbor’s grandparents lived on Madeline Island. So that’s my first thought. http://www.madelineisland.com/madeline-island/island-history/
I’m showing my age, but Cybil Shepherd played Madelyn “Maddie” Hayes on Moonlighting. If you add in that character with Madeleine Albright and then the cartoon, you can really see how this name took off in the 90’s. It may not be unique, but it still feels sweet… a new classic.
Thanks for the Moonlighting reference! And I’m sure Maddie Hayes inspired many parents to use the -lyn spelling …