Helena sounds romantic and classic, and best of all? It’s relatively underused.
Thanks to Another for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
Helena: Helen’s Cousin
A century ago, it was just Helen – hold the ‘a’ – that dominated American baby naming. It came second only to Mary from the turn of the twentieth century right through the 1910s.
Ellen, Elena, Lena, Elaine, Ilona, and Nell all appear on the same family tree. A crooked line stretches over to Eileen and even tangles up with Eleanor. Many of those names have routinely outranked Helena. In the 1950s, Helen, Ellen, and Elaine all appeared in the US Top 100, as did Eileen. Today, it’s Elena most in favor.
Helen comes from a Greek word meaning torch, or bright. It might have been influenced by moon goddess name Selene, too.
Helena: Ancient Roots
Way back in the fifth century BC, Euripides penned Helen, telling of the staggeringly beautiful daughter of Zeus and the mortal Leda. Her face would launch 1,000 ships – otherwise known as the Trojan War.
Whether the given name was common throughout the next few hundred years is difficult to say, but there is a Queen Helena of Adiabene in Mesopotmia around the year 30.
Another woman by the name gave birth to a rather famous son: Constantine, the Roman Emperor famed for ending the Diocletian persecutions and declaring religious toleration in the 300s. She’s considered a saint.
The saint inspired plenty of parents throughout the following centuries.
Geoffrey of Monmouth popularized Arthurian legend back in the twelfth century. He claimed her for England, making her a princess from Colchester. This is almost certainly pure fancy, but it led to many girls called Ellen – the popular Anglicization of the name in medieval England.
English parents embraced Helen sometime after the Renaissance. Elsewhere in Europe, the Latinate form became common. Throughout Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and German-speaking countries, Helena is preferred. It’s a steady Top 100 choice in many countries.
Helena: So Very English
It’s also the form chosen by Shakespeare twice. He gives the name to one of the young lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helena is the clever would-be-bride at the center of All’s Well That Ends Well, too.
Queen Victoria named her fifth child Helena Augusta Victoria. There have been royals named Elena and Helen, too. And in Victorian England, Helen was the most common form. Perhaps Prince Albert’s German roots influenced the name’s style; her nickname was the very Germanic Lenchen.
Either way, the literary and regal roots make this form of the name feel especially English.
Americans also probably think of London-born actor Helena Bonham Carter. She’s the daughter of an Elena and granddaughter to a Helene. She named her daughter Nell.
And one more: E! original series The Royals gave this name to their fictional dowager queen, played by Elizabeth Hurley.
Helena: By the Numbers
Despite lagging behind other forms of the name, Helena has appeared in the US Top 1000 every year except one. That’s enough to qualify as a classic.
And yet, it often appears near the fringes, falling into the high 800s and 900s in the 1980s and 1900s.
Credit for the name’s reversal seems to go to Ms. Bonham Carter. As she transitioned from rising indie star to full-on celebrity, her given name rose in use.
And yet, it still remains outside of the current Top 500. That could represent an opportunity, but it also raises the question: in our age of Isabella and Sophia, why is this name so overlooked?
Helena: The Million Dollar Question …
My guess? Pronunciation problems give parents pause.
There’s HEL en ah, he LEN ah, he LEE nah and he LAY nah. And I’m not sure that captures them all!
Your preferred nickname might inform the pronunciation you like best. Laney, Nell, and Lena all suggest a different sound.
Or maybe it depends on your roots. You might hear this name across much of Europe, but it sounds different in Oslo than in Warsaw, and it’s not said the same in Brussels and Berlin. The capital of Montana takes a specific pronunciation; but it’s not necessarily the same as the dozen or more other places with the same name.
Helena: Traditional With an Edge
Maybe it’s because this name remains rare. Credit could go to the actor. Or maybe it’s other factors, like the 1993 twisted horror story Boxing Helena, the gory love-gone-wrong song by The Misfits, or the Goth-pop hit by My Chemical Romance. But somehow traditional and storied Helena feels like a name with a little bit of an edge.
If you can settle on one sound – and don’t mind correcting others – it might be the perfect stands-out, fits-in choice.
So tell me: how do you say Helena? And would worries about pronunciation stop you from using this name?
Originally posted on August 11, 2008, this post was revised substantially and republished on September 26, 2018.
lol that’s my name, but I don’t like Laney either haha
Helena Lorraine Owens says
We pronounce mine Hell-EE-nuh or Huh-LEE-nuh but I do like Huh-Lay-nuh as well. However, most of the time people call me by nickname, Nina because they don’t want to struggle with pronunciation.
I stumbled upon this article and it’s really interesting! Yes, there seems to be many variations of pronouncing my name, Helena.
I pronounce it Huh-Lay-Na.
My dad says it’s supposed to be 해래나 (in Korean.) There are no English sounds to pronounce it the same.
My brother calls me Helen-ah bc he knows that bothers me.
I really dislike when someone shortens my name and calls me Helen.
I respond to any variations of Helena tho and if I don’t care for someone and they ask for my name, I tell them it’s Helen. Haha
Helena is adorable! It’s been my all time favourite. My Mum wanted to name me Helena, and then my sister was meant to be a Helena, but neither of us ended up having this name. Still, it’s my grandma’s name and one of my cousins’ honour middle name. I am Polish, so my default pronounciation is he-LE-nah, that’s how it’s pronounced in Poland, but when I pronounce it in English, it’s more like HE-le-nuh as I feel that sounds more natural. I dislike he-LAY-na. I love/like most of the forms of this name. helena is crazily popular over here at the moment – #23 – and it’s also a common name among older ladies, though actually, apart from my cousin whose middle name it is, I don’t know any other little girl named Helena which I think is sad. If I would plan to have children, I could consider Helena as a middle, I most probably would, but rather not as a first name, because of the popularity. And there’s also Lena #6. If I lived in an English-speaking country, the pronunciation issues probably would bother me a lot. I like the association with Helen Keller, I find her admirable, largely because I am blind myself.
I love, love, love this name!
When I was about 7, I became fascinated by the life of Helen Keller. (don’t ask me why). I thought it was a lovely name, but was even prettier when I tacked on an A. I was so proud of myself for coming up with something so pretty. Years later, when I discovered the name I had “made up” had actually been in existence for quite some time, I was a bit dissapointed. But it hasn’t made me love it any less! 17 years later, I am still enraptured by it!
I love all of the pronuciations, especially HEL-en-uh or Hel-EN-uh. The nickname Lenny/Lennie is also great.
I’m heh-LAY-nuh. I just had a stranger tell me on the phone how beautiful my name was after she pronounced it correctly! My name is often mispronounced and misspelled (Helen, Alena, Alana, etc.), but I love it. Thanks, Mom!
This being my name, the multiple pronunciations can be a real pain! I pronounce it he – LEE – nah but annoyingly I always get HEL – en – nah from people who don’t know me. Then again, I know a girl wih the same name as me who has the opposite problem. Other Helenas in my family have resorted to calling themselves the less ambiguous ‘Lena’ after getting tired of correcting people!
Helena is definitely on my wildcard list — I pronounce it as Heh-LAY-nah, but HEL-en-ah is nice as well. Helena Bonham Carter is one of my favorite actresses — Especially in Harry Potter! I don’t think anyone else would be able to pull off Bellatrix as well as she does. She’s just amazingly good — An actress you want to love and hate at the same time. And for 43 years old, she looks, at oldest, 38! I have major respect for the woman, even if the names she chose are better as nicknames. (Billy Ray, which only horribly reminds me of Cyrus, would have been lovely as William Raymond, and Nell would have been nice as any longer form: Elena and Eleanor being my favorites, if she didn’t want a little Helena after her.)
Helena is pretty, but I absolutely love the sweet and simple Helen!
Wow – a name that is almost universally liked, but without reaching any consensus on pronunciation! Probably why it wouldn’t make my short list – though I’d be charmed to meet a Helena, regardless of how she said her name. 🙂
Emmy Jo and Kayt, I think your experience is very, very common. My husband’s tastes are all over the map – he likes Emily for a girl, but was also willing to consider Octavia, Aurelia and Clio. For a boy, though, he was set – we HAD to use his dad’s name, Alexander. No discussion. He was willing to *call* him Alexei, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s still one in a horde of Alex-names.
I console myself with the statistics: In 1907, almost 40% of boys had one of the Top 20 most popular names while just under 29% of girls shared a Top 20 pick. By 1957, those numbers were 43% for boys and 30% for girls. And even in 2007, 16.5% of boys get a Top 20 choice, while just 13% of girls do.
While women’s opportunities may have been more constrained over the years, in terms of naming, it seems like we’ve always been able to imagine a wider range of possible personalities and qualities attached to our daughters. Or maybe there’s some other explanation, but it is a curious – and enduring – fact that the range of acceptable name for girls always seems to be broader.
Emmy, I know the pain. My husband took my top fifty boy’s name list and narrowed it down to James and William. Good luck! I think you might have better luck with Miles than Julius, although I think I like Julius a bit more.
Emmy Jo says
My husband’s not a fan of daring boys’ names. I’m still trying to convince him that Julius and Miles are normal enough to use on a child when the time comes; I don’t think I’d have much luck with Demetrius.
Emmy Jo, Demetrius is wonderful (Dmitriy is a HUGE favorite) and Lysander’s been a love of mine for a long time! You wouldn’t any weird comments from me! 😀
Well, Demi more was Demetria once upon a time…why can’t you use Demetrius?
Emmy Jo says
I’m a big fan of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” so I’ll take the Shakespearean HEL-en-uh pronunciation over all the rest. I love this name. (I’ve also considered Demetrius and Lysander, but everyone says they’re too weird.)
I love Helena, any way it’s pronounced. I would consider He-lay’-na for my daughter, but I don’t even like the nickname Laney.
I love Helena, though Hel-en-a is the only pronunciation I care for. I scrapped it from my hypothetical dd list for that reason. I prefer the simpler Helen and Ellen lately. I also love the nn Nell(e).
I’m such a sucker for ancient names that sound modern, so Helena is right up my ally. Realistically, though, the pronunciation issues are a deal breaker for me so I prefer the rarely mispronounced Elena.
Laney McDonald says
I love Helena! I pronounce it Hel-ay-na too; I really love the nickname Laney. lol I’m kinda biased about that though since Laney is also my nickname. (My real name is Amanda and middle name is Lynn. I got Laney from my middle name and I prefer it instead of Amanda. I really hate Amanda, and even worse, Mandy.)
Elena is nice too. I would use Helena or Elena for my kid if they weren’t so close to my nickname.
For me the preferred way to pronounce it is HEL-eh-na. I think he-LEE-na is my least favorite.
I love Helena! You’re right, what a different just one little letter makes! Helen is old and dated, but Helena sounds pretty and fresh. My only problem is that there’s so many different pronouciations, I prefer hel-leen-na.
As someone with three Aunt Helens, all between 72 & 84, I’m only beginning to appreciate Helena (and Helen). The only thing I dislike about Helena is her multiple pronunciations. Helen-ah is the only pronunciation I like, at all. And I would hate to have her correcting people forever! I think, given the choice, I’d go with the simply glorious Helen and leave Helena for the fluffier folks.
All in all, a gorgeous name, rich with history and warm. Thanks for this one, Another (and Verity!) Helena (and Helen) gets a huge :thumbsup: from me!
My parents live in rural Montana, and my dad had a near fatal heart attack in Helena. I admittedly have some negative associations with the name. That aside, I wouldn’t mind meeting a little Helena (said in my family as HEL-en-ah), I just couldn’t bear using it.
Love it! Thanks, Verity!