Isabella is the chart-topping, romanza name with a healthy dose of regal appeal. No wonder she’s heard from Peoria to Park Slope to the Pacific Palisades and back again. But she’s just one of many members of her name family.

Thanks to Kelleita for suggesting the less common and more tailored Isobel as Name of the Day.

It doesn’t get much more classic than Elizabeth. Elisheba and Elisheva appear in the Bible, and England’s Queen Elizabeth I is among the best-known female monarchs of all time. Nicknames abound. You could christen seven daughters Elizabeth and choose a separate diminutive for each.

Go back in time and Elizabeth was not well used. Most Biblical appellations hibernated up ’til the Reformation – at least among Christian parents. And while you’ll find Elizabeth (and Elezabeth, Elizibeth, Elspet, Elise and Elizabetha) as well as similar, but unrelated names, like Elisota, in use, cousin Isabel was the big noise.

From the twelfth century on, you could find an aristocratic Isabella or Isabel from England to Armenia, Jerusalem to Valois. The first Queen Isabella of England was the French-born second wife of King John. They passed the name onto a daughter. By marriage, Isabella of England became the Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Sicily.

Isobel is generally considered a Scottish variant, and the twelfth century Isobel of Huntingdon reinforces the image. The daughter of a Scottish prince, her grandson was King Robert I of Scotland, better known as Robert the Bruce. His claim to the throne was through grandma Isobel.

Scots or not, few American parents have ever embraced the -o spelling. In 2008:

  • More than 18,000 girls were named Isabella, the #2 name in the US;
  • Nearly 12,000 were called Elizabeth, the #9 pick;
  • An additional 3500 girls were given #93, Isabelle and nearly as many wear #96, Isabel;
  • Also ranked were Elisabeth (#525), Isabela (#533) and Isabell (#790).

Isobel charted in the Top 1000 just a few times between 1903 and 1921 – another time when Isabel was especially fashionable.

It’s something of a puzzle. Is Isobel just different enough, or more of the same?

Try this: go to a baby name message board and announce that you’re calling your daughter Kaydee because it is so unique. Within minutes, someone will point out the obvious – Kaydee might not rank in the Top 1000, but between Kate, Katie, Kaylee, Kaylin and company, she’s not at all unusual.

But let’s suppose you’re not looking for unusual. Many find Isobel akin to Katharine or Elisabeth – variant spellings, yes, but ones that seem more sophisticated, not less. Plus, you’re more likely to find an Isobel in the UK – and rightly or not, that lends her an upscale vibe in the US. (Of course, -a spellings of the name are more popular in Scotland, too.)

Speaking of Katherine, Katherine Heigl’s character on Grey’s Anatomy is Isobel, though she usually answers to Izzie. Other notable uses of the name include:

  • A Björk single – “Isobel” was recorded in 1995;
  • The seventeenth century Isobel Gowdie was tried for witchcraft in Scotland;
  • Isobel Campbell was a founding member of indie rock darlings Belle & Sebastian. She’s now a solo artist.

Overall, Isobel is not as dramatic a departure from the evergreen Elizabeth as Liesel, Isabeau or other medieval variants. (Some are quite tempting to use – Belsante, Isobelot, Sabelina or Ysabelon, anyone?) In the middle spot, I’d use Isobel without hesitation.

But as a first name? The wild popularity of Isabella gives me pause. She’s tailored and storied, but that might not be enough to make up for the constant spelling headaches.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. We just named our new baby Isobel Clementine. We chose this spelling to honor my husband’s Scottish heritage. While Isabella may be “common” we don’t actually know any. So the popularity of that name didn’t bother us. I find Isobel just different enough to be fresh while still on trend. Thanks for sharing this information about her name! We hadn’t planned to name her this, it just came to us after she was born. And I came straight to your site to see what you had to say about it 🙂

  2. Had to step in and say something here. I’m completely in love with Elisabeth. And my very favourite name is Rose Isabel. Of course I love many -bel(le) names as middles, but Isabel/Isobel is my favourite. That might have something to do with Elisabeth, though.

    I prefer the Isabel spelling, simply because I always read Isobel as Is-oh-belle rather than Is-ah-belle. And it was a books main character so… (I’m 16, and many of my favourite names are from the books I read. Andromeda, anyone?)