On the heels of Victor Hugo’s Eponine, we turn our attention to another French-not-French choice.

Thanks to Sebastiane for suggesting Ondine as Name of the Day.

From Anna to Ida and Elizabeth to Amanda, plenty of names beginning with vowels have been big hits for girls. But until Olivia, O names were often overlooked. Today, Owen and Oliver have joined the mix. But parents seeking a distinctive name can easily look to the letter O.

Ondine – pronounced OHN deen or possibly AHN deen – sounds French. And you might hear her in France today, though she’s quite rare. Yet unlike the sinking Eponine, Ondine has been on the upswing in recent years.

She traces back to undine, a term coined by Paracelsus – a sixteenth century scientist whose work strayed into the occult. Paracelsus linked each of the four elements to a creature – gnomes for the earth, salamanders for fire, sylphs for airs and undines for water. His inspiration for the last is pretty clear – the Latin unda means wave.

Paracelsus didn’t intend to use the term as a personal name. Instead, in the early 1800s, Freidrich de la Motte Fouqué chose Undine for his heroine, a water sprite who falls for a mortal. Enter the singing crustacean – Undine shares roots with the Little Mermaid, as well as many a similar fairy tale.

Undine became a nineteenth century artistic staple, inspiring adaptations for opera and ballet, as well as countless paintings and sculptures. It happened fast, too – the story appeared in 1811, and by 1830, the ballet Ondine, ou La Naïade debuted in London.

But Ondine was no Ariel. As befits operatic drama, when she caught her beloved cheating, Ondine summoned up the remains of her mystical abilities and cursed him. Should he ever fall asleep again, he’d struggle to breathe. That’s why a type of sleep apnea is referred to as “Ondine’s Curse.”

Other uses of the name and references to her story include:

  • Antonin Dvořák wrapped together several European stories for his 1901 opera, but called his Rusalka – the Slavic equivalent;
  • Maurie Ravel used Ondine as the title for the first movement of his Gaspard de la nuit;
  • Audrey Hepburn once played the title role on stage in Jean Giraudoux’s Ondine;
  • Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country featured Undine Spragg, a small town girl with big ambitions – and pushy parents – who makes her way into New York City society.
  • In her 1982 novel Tar Baby, Toni Morrion named one of her characters Ondine;
  • Tchaikovsky composed the opera Undina in 1869. While you may not have heard Undina, some of the musical was recycled for later works, including Swan Lake;
  • In 2001, CBS miniseries Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story supposed that corporate exec Jack Robinson – a descendant of the original Jack – might have an opportunity to atone for his ancestor’s giant-killing activities. Ondine is a mysterious woman who gives the assist.

There are no shortages of fictional Ondines, but real life examples are few. A handful turn up in census records, surely inspired by one of the many literary, musical or artistic uses. The same is true of Undine and Undina.

While her sophisticated sound might be a bit much for a small child, Ondine isn’t so far from popular picks of recent decades – Colleen or Josephine, for example. So if you’re seeking some rare and like the links to myth, literature and music, Ondine could be one to consider.

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. Probably late to the party (probably? It’s 2016 XD), but there’s a new spelling for this name as of last year: Undyne (UN-dine). It comes from a video game character (from the indie game Undertale), so some might be hesitant to use it. But the watery mythological origins you wrote about (the character is a fish-woman, so her name is really fitting :3), as well as the nod to the word “undying” (adding sort of an element of “immortal” to the meaning, I think :3) make it seem like another possible name choice. At least, I think it could make a nice name. I wonder if anyone’s used it yet…