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.
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 🙂
Laura Rose says
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?)
I am partial to Isobel, as it is my daughter’s name. While I cringe at the overused Isabella and Isabelle, my very traditional husband vetoed every unique, hippy-chic name I suggested — with the exception of Isobel, which I liked ever since I heard Dido’s song of the same name. It helped that my husband is a huge Belle & Sebastian fan. He indulged me on her middle name — Isobel Clover 🙂
Great name! I love Clover – especially in the middle spot.
I’m considering Isobel as a middle name this time around. It’s a family name. I’d never consider using it as a first name though. Just too popular. It is very pretty atleast.
I like it a lot. My grandmother was Margaret Isobella, which makes me like Isobel more.
Its a nice enough name, but still just another form of the overtly popular Isabella and Isabelle. I used to adore Isabella and Isabelle, but after it got so popular, it lost its luster for me. I still think they are very nice names, just not wow worthy. Another medieval variant I found was Isabelline. It also became the name of a colour. I quite like it.
I love this variant spelling, but also would refrain from using it due to the popularity of its sound-alike sisters. I’ve played with it in the middle name spot, but I keep hearing a sentence: Mary Isobel… Mary is a bell. 🙁 So I just can’t bring myself to do it. Such a pretty, simple name with a rich and elegant history.
Isobel has always been my favourite variant of Isabelle. No-nonsense, straightforward, beautiful and utterly British ^^
Just as I like it!
The Isabella and Isabelle etc. saturation is why I hesitated (and continue to) with Ishbel and Iseabail. Shame.
Isabeau is something I’ve gone back to liking again but seeing all the male Beau’s popping up in Kiwi and Aus BAs plus all those many twee hyphenated female Bo/Beau/Boe/Bow and Boo names in the new UK “every name listed” stats, plus all the “Isn’t beau male?” comments, I’m strongly questioning it as a first name.
Isobel was the name we had liked most at the very start of our trying to have kids… back in ’99 or so (I’ll admit to having serious British influence on the names I like, being as my whole trying for a baby adventure was started and sustained throughout the years I lived in England). When we had our daughter in ’07, the popularity of all the variants (including the Isabella ones) made us drop it off the list. Isadora replaced it and was a serious contender. I still love Isobel, but I do believe that just spelling something differently doesn’t really matter too much, in terms of uniqueness. So if choosing Isobel is driven by the desire to make the name unique, I’d say it falls short (like any less-used spelling variant, although this one is at least ‘valid’.) However, if it’s because it’s what appeals, then that makes plenty of sense. For me, Isabelle has a lot of letters and I like that Isobel is more stream-lined. In any case, I’d find it hard to fault the name in any way, other than popularity – it’s pretty and I personally like the way this spelling looks on the page.
British American says
I think I’d forgotten about the name Isobel. It seems strangely familiar from my British days. 🙂 I do like it, though maybe more as a middle name.
I like Isadora too. Though it does make me think of the sentence “Is a door.” Same with “Is a bell.” So putting the ‘o’ in Isobel does solve that one. 🙂
I think I prefer Isobel to Isabel, etc. It does somehow appear more sophisticated to me as well as less tired and overdone. I wouldn’t use it as a first name given the popularity of Isabel’s many variants, but I’d definitely consider it for a middle (especially since my husband’s partial to the name).
I actually find that spelling less sophisticated than Isabel. I really like Isabel. It’s tailored, feminine, and has a neat sound. Isabella, however, annoys the bleep out of me. Too princessy for my taste. Elizabeth is one of my favorite names. It’s off the list, though, because it’s my cousin’s name. If I had to choose any variant of Elizabeth, it would be Elizabeth itself.