I wrote about Eleanor just a few months ago – and yet the requests keep coming for this one.
Thanks to Jillian for suggesting the slightly different Elinor as Name of the Day.
Jillian dropped me a line after Elinor Ostrom nabbed the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, along with her colleague Oliver E. Williamson. (Technically, it is the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2009.) Ostrom is a member of the faculty at Indiana University, and the first woman to win the award.
It’s no surprise when Elinor triumphs in academics. The name sounds smart. Other notable bearers include Elinor Brent-Dyer, the author of the beloved Chalet School series poet Elinor Wylie, who wrote in the 1920s, and aviatrix Elinor Smith, one of the earliest female pilots – who was still serving as a test pilot in her 80s, just a few years ago.
But is it really a different name than Eleanor? Actress Elinor Fair graduated from vaudeville to silent movies, shedding the name Eleanor Crowe along the way. So did Father Knows Best alum Elinor Donahue, who was born Mary Eleanor Donahue.
It was also the spelling Jane Austen used for heroine Elinor Dashwood, the eldest sister in Sense and Sensibility. She’s both sensible and selfless, even in the face of heartache and worse – a sharp contrast to her fanciful, emotional younger sister Marianne.
While Eleanor is a legendary French queen with a romantic edge, Elinor is the practical, capable type. So maybe it’s no surprise that Eleanor is more popular – a Top 100 pick for decades, from the 1890s into the 1940s. Elinor peaked at #252 in 1916, and left the rankings entirely after 1953.
But are they different names?
While it’s true that Noor, meaning light, is an Arabic name, I’m not clear why some sites indicate that Elinor is of Arabic origin. The Scandinavian Elin is a variant of Helen, but linking Elinor to Elin also feels like a stretch.
Instead, it seems as if Elinor was an alternate spelling for Eleanor. As early as the 13th century, a few fleeting references to Elinora, Elinaor and Alianore suggest that while others emulated the queen’s name, a standard spelling was elusive. That’s no surprise.
It’s complicated by the modern assumption that Eleanor is the correct version. For example, a 13th century manuscript listed a wealthy Elinor, but over the years her name was standardized to Eleanor. As late as the 1700s, entrepreneur Eleanor Coade was occasionally listed as Elinor Coade.
Sometime in the late 1500s, we start to see Elinor in more regular use, right alongside Eleanor. While she’s yet to reappear in the US Top 1000, Katie Couric bestowed the name on her daughter. El- names continue to be all the rage – in 2008, Ella was #19; Ellie #167; Eliana #203; Elise #218 and Elle #494. It’s easy to imagine parents adopting Elinor – a trim, perfectly legitimate alternative spelling that would fit right in with Katharine and Isobel.
And yet the same warnings apply – sophisticated or not, Elinor will do a lot of spelling.