Editor’s note: This post was originally published on November 7, 2008. It was substantially revised and re-posted on May 19, 2014.
She’s an Australian folk song, the brainy prankster in a popular children’s book and a famous celebrity kid. No wonder she’s on the upswing in recent years.
Thanks to Corinne for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day: Matilda.
Not so long ago, Matilda was squarely in granny territory.
The name charted in the Top 1000 through 1964, but she’d left the Top 200 around 1909, and had faded quickly over the years.
There’s something gentle and old school about folk song “Waltzing Matilda,” sometimes called the unofficial national anthem of Australia. Packed with deliciously strange slang and memorable lyrics, it’s worth noting that Matilda isn’t actually the name of a sheila with her dancing shoes always at the ready. To “waltz matilda” is to travel with your worldly goods on your back.
Lately she’s staging a comeback. Credit:
- She entered the starbaby pantheon when the late Australian actor Heath Ledger and Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams chose this name for their daughter.
- Matilda Wormwood is the heroine of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel. Dahl’s Matilda is a five year old brainiac born to neglectful parents. She fills her hours with outrageous antics before using her gifts for good. They all live happily ever after, in the book and in the 1996 movie version. In 2010, the musical version debuted on Broadway, and it’s racked up a few Tony awards.
Both the high profile kid and the book/movie/musical have pushed Matilda back into the spotlight. In 2008, Matilda re-entered the US Top 1000, charting at #824. She stands at #644 as of 2013.
Matilda feels playful, smart, and slightly Australian. But her roots are in early medieval Europe.
She comes from Mahthildis – strength in battle. In Old French, she became Mahaut. William the Conqueror’s wife wore the name, so it was among the many the Normans brought to England. You’ll find a tangle of aristocratic English Matildas in the 1000s and 1100s, including one who attempted to claim the crown for herself.
Thanks to a ninth century Saint Matilda, known for her charitable works, the name has an equivalent in most European languages, though variants abound in the Middle Ages – the English favored Maud; the Portuguese preferred Mafalda.
Matilda picks up on several appealing sounds. She’s not so far removed from Madeline, and could possibly share her nickname Mattie or Maddie.
There’s also Millie and Tilly, sweetly vintage short forms that feel ready for revival.
You’ll find more Matildas in Australia and the UK, where’s she’s really quite mainstream. She’s in use from Sweden to Chile, while Mathilde is big in Denmark and France, and Matilde is heard in Italy.
Overall, it’s easy to see why we’re all about Matilda. She’s sweetly old-fashioned, but with plenty of spunky, modern spirit, too. She fits right in with the current Top Ten – Sophia, Abigail, Matilda. She’s darling on a kindergartener, and perfectly reasonable on a grown-up, too. Best of all, she’s still relatively rare in the US – for now.