She’s a tragic figure from literature and Broadway. But with the revival of interest in French names for girls, might some parents discover her?
Thanks to Sebastiane for suggesting Eponine as Name of the Day.
Maybe it goes without saying that Eponine has never charted in the US Top 1000. Neither has Cosette, another name made famous by Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables.
Thanks in part to Brangelina starbaby Vivienne, French names for girls are back. Claire, Gabrielle, Madeline and Madeleine are all common. Choices like Juliette and Noemi are heard more often, too. At first glance, Eponine is ideal – she’s French, literary and thanks to the musical, widely known without being at all common.
And yet, Eponine suffers from one deficiency. She’s not exactly French.
Don’t get me wrong. Les Mis – novel and musical – are all about the early 1800s in France. It’s a miserable moment: food shortages, outbreaks of disease and political unrest combined to form the backdrop for Hugo’s tale. (We tend to link the story with the French Revolution, what with revolutionaries waving red flags and such. But it’s actually the decades-later June Uprising.)
Eponine is the daughter of the Thénardiers. They’re the greedy, unscrupulous innkeepers who agree to keep the infant Cosette while her penniless mama, Fantine, looks for work. The couple pamper Eponine while giving Cosette the Cinderella treatment.
She’s not a bad character, though there’s debate about her motivations and whether her eventual death is noble or something other. And when the musical debuted in the 1980s, some French parents chose Eponine – but never many. Eponine peaked in 2001, with a grand total of 28 baby girls given the name.
Hugo invented the names of Eponine and her sister Azelma. (The younger sister doesn’t appear in the stage version.) While plenty of literary names are embraced – think of Shakespeare’s Jessica or Philip Sidney’s Pamela. But here’s what our author penned about the names he bestowed:
…. the female Thenardier was nothing but a coarse, vicious woman, who had dabbled in stupid romances. Now, one cannot read nonsense with impunity … her eldest daughter was named Eponine; as for the younger, the poor little thing came near being called Gulnare; I know not to what diversion, effected by a romance of Ducray-Dumenil, she owed the fact that she merely bore the name of Azelma.
Translation: Mom watched too many soaps and decided it would be a good idea to give her girls outlandish names.
That subtle point goes unmentioned in the musical.
If you dig back to guess at Hugo’s inspiration or find an etymologic link, one intriguing possibility surfaces – Epona, a Celtic horse goddess embraced by the Romans – paired with the French feminine ending -ine.
I’m undecided – is she an intriguing literary pick or an outrageous name meant to indicate her poor start in life – sort of like calling your kiddo Qristyl or Jazileyn? And while Epi is obviously out as a nickname, you could use the appealing Nina.
So while Eponine is literary, the name has flaws – just like the character. There are probably other French-fried picks for a girl that would wear more comfortably.