This post was originally published on February 21, 2009. It was substantially revised and re-posted on September 21, 2015.
It’s simple, elegant, and so much more than just a gemstone name.
Thanks to Kate for suggesting today’s Baby Name of the Day: Pearl.
Pearl: A Gem of a Name
Like many a precious gem, Pearl was first widely used as a given name in the nineteenth century. In the US, the name ranked as high as #24 in the 1890s.
A beautiful pearl is rare. They’re produced by oysters. In nature, a bit of sand slips inside the oyster’s shell. An elegant defense system coats the grain with a shiny substance as a barrier. Instead of diving down and prying open every oyster hoping for a jackpot, today most pearls are farmed. The oysters are still employed, but the sand is slipped in on purpose.
So pearls come from oysters, but the word is a little harder to trace.
The Old French was perle, and is first recorded in the 1200s. But the usual Latin was margarita, from the Greek margarites – the source of the classic Margaret. Theories abound, linking pearl to words for similar shapes. There’s the Old English pere, for pear and the Sicilian perna, or ham. We just don’t know for certain.
Nonetheless, we’ve been wearing the gems forever. The earliest record goes back to China, circa 2300 BC. Royals used to sew them into their clothing. They’ve been crushed up as cosmetics.
And, of course, it’s the birthstone for June, making this a logical choice for a summer baby.
Pearl: Literary Dimensions
The Pearl of Great Price is a New Testament parable. According to Matthew, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to the costliest pearl. This makes the name a subtle spiritual choice.
The name picks up a literary dimension thanks to:
- In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, adulteress Hester Prynne give the name to her daughter.
- John Steinbeck wrote a novella called The Pearl – his hero was a poor pearl diver searching for one perfect gem to pay medical bills for his son.
- Then there’s Pearl S. Buck, the Pulitzer Prize winning American writer raised in China by missionary parents. She’s best known for her enduring 1931 novel The Good Earth. (That’s her in the picture.)
There’s also Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. The portrait inspired a 1999 novel by the same name, which became a 2003 movie starring Scarlett Johansson as Griet – the name the author gave to the girl.
Pearl: 21st Century Edge
The name has acquired something of an edge in recent years. Pearl Jam emerged from Seattle’s grunge scene to become one of the most influential bands of the decade. And let’s not overlook Minnie Pearl, she of the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw fame. If the rock band lends Pearl an edge, the country comedienne gives the name a certain spunk.
But mostly this name feels vintage, and the numbers suggest that it’s enjoying a revival. After leaving the US Top 1000 in the 1980s, Pearl returned in 2007. As of 2014, the name ranked #628.
Maya Rudolph and Jack Osborne both gave this name to their daughters. It was the middle name Busy Phillips chose for daughter Cricket, and Shonda Rhimes has an Emerson Pearl.
Not far behind is #664 – Perla, the Italian and Spanish version of the name.
Pearl is spare, sophisticated, and undeniably vintage, with layers of meaning. It’s a great option for parents looking for a fits-in/stands-out name for a girl.
What do you think of Pearl? Will this name continue to catch on?
I had never, ever given any thought to the name Pearl, for some reason, but today, I read a sweet story about a mom named Perla, and now Perla is at the top of my list. How had I never considered it before? It is darling!
I so much love this name and is my choice of name for my baby girl.
Ann-Marie Meyers says
One of my pet names for my daughter Sally is Pearl. I have always had an affinity for pearls. I treasure them more than diamonds.
My middle name, from my great grandma. Her maiden name was Pearl Pansy Pace if you can believe it! I love this name and hope to carry on the tradition with my daughter.
Pearl Pansy Place is fabulous! And yes, it’s definitely a name worth passing on. 🙂
Hmm I do like this name although not enough to make my favourites list. I feel that others such as Edith are ready to be pulled out of the closet but I’m not sure that Pearl’s quite ready.
Christina Fonseca says
Sophie – Beatrix Elodie Pearl is a wonderful combination!
Emmy Jo says
Abby — Some scholars have speculated that his daughter’s name was Margaret.
I wonder if the reason the name Pearl never caught on with the Puritans has to do with their desire for simplicity and modesty in dress. Though pearls are used in the symbolically in the Bible, St. Paul also cautions women to “dress modestly…not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Would naming a daughter Pearl have felt too showy and vain, perhaps?
That’s probably it. I guess there weren’t any Puritan girls named Ruby, either, despite that whole “good woman is better than rubies” bit.
But that’s *so* interesting that her name might’ve been Margaret. Don’t you just *love* history!
Pearl is my favourite gemstone name by far so thanks for making her name of the day. I think it’s because she feels so different to the others gemstones; less gawdy and showy, she oozes the quiet, simple elegance that pearls themselves offer.
I think she would make a pretty and unusual choice these days and agree with other posters that she seems well suited to the middle spot where she fufils the common requirement for a mono-syllable name but would sound fresh, classy and once familiar and yet wonderfully unexpected.
Sarah, I was dimly aware of a SpongeBob character named Pearl, but I didn’t realize she was a whale – yikes!
Emmy Jo, that’s interesting – was there any suggestion that Pearl *was* his daughter’s name? I’m assuming that’s not the case, especially not in that era. But I keep wondering why the Puritans didn’t pick up on the idea of naming their daughters Pearl?
Beatrix Elodie Pearl is lovely, Sophie! But Maris, oh – I *love* Maris!
I adore Pearl; she’s pretty, but simple, and has a lot of class about her. She’s actually one of the very very few one-syllable names I actually like. (Along with Maeve & Jane – and Rose, Claire, Elle/Belle and Anne, to an extent) She features in a few of my combos-in-progress – prominently Beatrix Elodie Pearl.
My younger sister actually had her second baby earlier this month and named her Lilian Margarete Pearl 🙂 It was either that or Lilian Amelie Maris!
Emmy Jo says
Pearl is lovely!
As another literary/spiritual reference, there’s an important 14-century Middle English poem called “Pearl” — it is both a spiritual allegory and an elegy for the poet’s deceased young daughter. The poet is unknown, but he’s thought to be the same one who wrote the slightly more famous “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Anyway, “Pearl” is touching and beautiful, provided one can wade through the slightly odd Middle English dialect.
Now I’ve revealed myself as a completely nerdy medieval literature nut. 🙂
This is my favourite middle name of all time! I love it as a first name too but the Whale on Spongebob Squarepants is called Pearl which kinda puts me off it as a first name.
I think Pearl’s sweet. I too think she’s classy and feminine and I also think she’s soft and pretty and will age well. Maya Rudolph has a Pearl who’s what, 3 now? Definitely a lovely choice. I’ve got her in one of my combos, so I must like her! Pearl gets a solid :thumbsup: from me!
Christina Fonseca says
I love Pearl! She’s feminine, she’s classy and she is my favorite gem name . I did not realize she has not ranked in the last 20 years. She’s wonderful on a little girl, a grown woman, or a great-grandmother.
Not to mention Pearl, the landlord – she’s nasty. She’s also Jeremy Piven’s neice.
I think Pearl is an excellent name. It’s certainly feminine, but not too “girly.” Edgy, but not tough. Short, but not abrubt! Also, just unusual enough.