Editor’s note: This post was originally published on October 23, 2008, and substantially revised and republished on August 20, 2012.
It’s a delicate nom for a petite mademoiselle, with an eye on the skies.
Thanks to Another for suggesting our Name of the Day: Celeste.
Celeste is pretty and polite. With her French style, she could easily be little sister to Madeleine or Genevieve. But despite her similarities to some of the most popular picks in recent decades, Celeste is falling out of favor in recent years.
Celeste has never cracked the Top 200 in the US, despite the fact that she’s appeared in the Top 1000 every year since 1880. In 2007, she ranked a modest #354. By 2011, she had fallen to #453.
She sounds antique, and indeed her story is a long one. Celeste comes from the Latin caelestis, meaning heavenly. Caelestis may have been used as a personal name, but Celestine was probably the preferred form, worn by five popes between the 400s and 1200s. There’s no Celeste in the historical record before the 1800s, but Celestria was in use in England in the late 1100s and early 1200s.
Maria Celeste was the name Galileo’s daughter took when she entered a convent at San Matteo. (She was born Virginia.) Maria needs no explanation, but Celeste was apparently inspired by her father’s passion for astronomy.
There’s something tremendously musical about this choice. A celesta looks something like an upright piano, invented in the late nineteenth century and used heavily in the early part of the twentieth century. The opera Aida includes an aria called “Celeste Aida” – heavenly Aida. And there’s an organ stop called the voix celeste – heavenly voice. Celeste de Longpré Heckscher was a nineteenth century composer.
Celeste appears steadily in English beginning in the nineteenth century, borrowed from the French Céleste. There’s no single reason the name caught on. Nineteenth century uses include:
- In 1801, French astronomer Jerome Lalande and the staff of the Paris Observatory published Histoire Céleste Française, a major star catalog.
- Tennessee Celeste Claflin, known to friends as Tennie C. Along with her sister Victoria, she opened the first woman-owned Wall Street brokerage in 1870.
- In 1872, the mysteriously abandoned ship Mary Celeste was found afloat in the Atlantic Ocean, her crew disappeared without a trace.
- If you visited the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, you would have seen Le Grand Globe Céleste – a theater showing a movie of the solar system, in the shape of a giant sphere.
- Oscar-nominated actress Celeste Holm, best known for her role in 1950’s All About Eve;
- From children’s book fame, Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar the Elephant married fellow pachyderm Celeste and made her his Queen;
- One of the posthumous VC Andrews series of novels is built around a character called Celeste;
Add in athletes and some minor television characters, too. In English she’s seh LEST, but in Spanish she’s the three-syllable say LESS tay. Celine and Selena are similar names to consider, along with the more modern choices like Ciel and Skye.
Overall, she’s a ladylike appellation, little used and very on trend – and a far more subtle and sophisticated choice than Nevaeh. She’s great in the middle spot, too, an alternative to Marie. If you’re disappointed that so many French names for girls are on the rise, Celeste is an enduring alternative.