When the Beatles crooned Michelle, ma belle, they sent the given name to the top of the charts. But despite their equally appealing 1968 tune – said to be one of John Lennon’s favorites – Prudence has lingered in obscurity since the 1940s. Could this mother of all virtues be reconsidered as a fitting name for a modern daughter?
Thanks to Katharine and Catherine for suggesting Today’s Name of the Day.
Prudence is the original virtue. To be prudent means to exercise wisdom and good judgement. Both the Greek philosophers and St. Thomas Aquinas counseled that practicing prudence would lead to the right course of action. Today, we’ve added a certain aura of hesitance to prudence. While it’s always been there – good choices require thought – in modern usage, we tend to over-emphasize Prudence’s cautious nature and downplay her smarts.
The famous Beatles song contributes to our sense of Prudence as a bit persnickety. The lyrics constantly ask her Won’t you come out to play? The story goes that Prudence was a real person – Mia Farrow’s sister. The two women accompanied the Fab Four to a meditation retreat in India. While the others sought enlightenment ensemble, Prudence preferred to find inner peace on her own. It’s just coincidence that her given name implies hesitance. Had Mia been the reclusive sister, and thus the subject of the lyrics, perhaps the song would have a very different connotation.
As a given name, Prudence sounds like a Puritan virtue choice, and indeed she was embraced by those intrepid reformers. But Prudentia was a feminine name for centuries, and Prudence appears in the historical record as early as the Middle Ages in England. The Late Latin Prudentia and Prudentius are both derived from prudentia, a contracted form of the word providentia – as in providence, or foresight. The term became prudence in Old French. Just as Sophia has long been in use because of her meaning, the quality prudence inspired many a parent.
While other virtue names for girls have climbed the charts, Prudence has remained quietly in the background. Indeed, she was never a star. In 1880, Prudence ranked #415 in the US. She’d place in the Top 1000 names most years until 1948, but never made it higher than her 1880 slot. While that’s not surprising today, it’s less understandable looking at past decades’ Top 100 names. Both Grace and Gertrude were popular picks back in the 1880s, and remained common for most of the same period that saw Prudence slowly fall from favor.
Fictional Prudences are a fairly recent innovation. The best known is probably Prudence “Prue” Halliwell, one of the original three witches on the WB’s long-running series Charmed. While sisters Piper and Phoebe both boosted their characters’ names, Shannen Doherty failed to work any baby naming magic for Prudence.
An animated Prudence plays a part in Disney’s Cinderella sequels, and Prudence was one of the many lyrically named characters in 2007’s Across the Universe, a musical Beatles tribute film of sorts. The hero was called Jude and they went with Lucy for the female lead.
Prudence seems smart. We can easily picture her as a no-nonsense district attorney or a pioneering scientist. But, we must admit, it’s a stretch to imagine a small child wearing this name. Prudence seems to spring to life around the age of 43.
The nickname Prue softens this image, but also comes close to prune – not a youthful foodstuff. Few other options come to mind – Dency? Denca? Gertrude leads to Trudy, and Ethel could become Ellie. But there are few easy diminutives for Prudence.
One option is to choose something like Prudence Jane and call her PJ. We’re fond of initials-as-nicknames. But if it’s the heft and substance of this name that you admire, odds are that you’ll find PJ too flimsy.
So we can’t help think that Prudence, wise and capable though she may be, is likely to remain well outside the Top 1000 for the foreseeable future.