LenaEditor’s note: This post was originally published on January 6, 2009.  It was substantially revised and re-posted on March 24, 2014.

She’s short and sophisticated, part-nickname, part-standalone.  And thanks to the creative powerhouse behind HBO’s Girls, she’s very much in the spotlight.

Thanks to JNE for suggesting the lovely Lena as the Name of the Day.

While Tina and Gina both feel dated, fellow diminutive Lena has a timeless appeal.  All of them come from longer names – in this case, Helena and Magdalena are the two most common, but definitely not the only possibilities.

Her meaning depends on the name that you’ve shortened.  If you’ve borrowed from the Helen family, then she means light or bright.  Mary Magdalene took her name from the place, Magdala, in ancient Palestine.

But Lina is an Arabic name meaning tender, as well as a Hindi name meaning united.  Add in names ending with -lina, like Catalina, and there’s a whole other list of potential origins and meanings.

All of this makes Lena nicely international, heard in Slavic and Scandinavian languages and beyond.  She’s currently popular in Germany and Poland, but well known in plenty of European countries, from Ireland to Belgium to Slovenia.  There’s a river in Siberia and a village in Norway by the name.  It’s easy to imagine her on a well-worn passport.

As your Lena crosses borders, she may find her name pronounced differently.  Some advocate for LAY nah, and in our age of Layla, it is easy to imagine her finding favor.  Others rhyme this name with Jenna.  But the dominant pronunciation is a long ‘e’ sound – LEE nah, which tracks with Liam and Leah and other Lee- names that we appreciate in the US.

You may have heard of:

  • Oscar-nominated Swedish actress Lena Olin is probably best known as Sidney Bristow’s not-so-nurturing mom on Alias.
  • English actress Lena Heady graduated from the lead role in FOX’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles to HBO’s Game of Thrones, where she plays Cersei.
  • Speaking of HBO, the previously mentioned Ms. Dunham has won many accolades and awards for her series, Girls.
  • Alexis Bleidel played a member of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants who answered to this name – and also, tomboyish nickname Lenny.
  • Lina Cavalieri was an Italian operatic soprano, born Natalina.
  • Born Elena, Lena Katina is part of Russian pop duo t.A.T.u..

Other notables hail from Cuba and Syria, but the most famous is doubtless the award-winning singer, actress and activist Lena Horne.  In 1943 she sang “Stormy Weather” in a movie of the same name. We’ve forgotten the flick, but she’s still famous for that song.

Horne was also an important part of the Civil Rights Movement, working with Eleanor Roosevelt on anti-lynching laws, marching on Washington and refusing to perform for segregated audiences on the USO Tour. Thanks to her, Lena can be considered a hero name.

She’s all on the rise.  In 2007, she ranked #453.  By 2012, she’d climbed to #360.  That’s a far cry from her former Top 50 ranking in the nineteenth century, but she’s definitely attracting notice.

If you love the simplicity of choices like Emma and Ava, but want something less common, Lena is an elegant, playful, and accomplished choice that will wear on a daughter throughout her life.

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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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What do you think?


  1. My mother had an aunt Lena (‘lay-na’). Tante Lena emigrated from Germany. Her given name was Helene, but I never heard her called anything other than Lena. I prefer this pronunciation of Lena.

  2. My great-grandma was a Lena, although in her case is was short for Oline.
    I love the name Lena, the only thing holding back my affections is that Lena is kind of a jokey typical name for an old Scandinavian. Ala The Prairie Home Companion’s ubiquitous Ole & Lena jokes. It’s a little bit like name Italians girls named Angie and Gina or Catholic girls name Mary Margaret… perfectly nice names, but a little stereotypical.

  3. My great-great grandmother was named Lena (long-E pronunciation). I’m not sure how she came to be named that as we don’t have Scandinavian or German heritage, but she lived in Memphis for most of her life and was quite the genteel Southern lady, from what I’ve been told. I would love to use Lena to honor her and for its cross-cultural appeal.

  4. Oh how I look longingly at this name! Here in MN there are a plethora of Ole & Lena jokes centered around the silly antics of people of Scandinavian descent! I hope this name gains enough popularity to shake that image for us here! It’s so lovely and international.