Name of the Day: Prudence

Dear Prudence.

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.

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18 Comments

I know it’s an old thread but I’ll my $.02 in anyway.

Prudence is one of those names that you love or hate but are rarely indifferent to it. My little girl is named Prudence. Her name was picked by her dad and it’s after the Beatles song but I loved Charmed so I was happy to go along with it. We call her Pru and her big brother calls her Prudie. We love it.

Well, my little girl is called Prudence and she is 4. I am so glad that we gave her this name as she is a little bit quirky and wears glasses. Very cute. We call her Prudy for short, she probably will shake this off as she gets older!

Congrats Katie! I actually think Prudence is a wonderful name. I love that she’s a virtue name that isn’t really common (Grace) and doesn’t seem set up for failure/irony (Chastity).

I would throw in Rue as a good nickname. Yes it’s from Hunger Games but it gets away from the Prue/Prune association. And Rue is such a noble, sweet girl 🙂 I’m still trying to convince DH on Prudence…maybe for a middle name?

I honestly can’t stand this name! It’s way too old fashioned for my taste, although I do like some older names, and the poor little girl would most likely be teased for it. She’d be called “prude” or “dense”. Gertrude is just as bad in my opinion. They both seem like old lady names or dog names to me. I probably wouldn’t even use them for a dog. No offense to anyone who likes them.

I do like Phoebe though. It’s familiar but so underused.

With names like Hazel and Matilda becoming mainstream, I think you really have to go out of your way to shock people. Prudence still has that much coveted element of surprise.

‘rin squared’ – like it! 🙂

I totally agree with dirty hippies comment Prudence is a “so wrong it’s right” sort of name. I would never be brave enough to use it (or allowed to for that matter) but love it all the same! I first started liking the name when I read The Land girls (it was made into a film too) – Pru is one of the lead characters and a more fiery, headstrong, impulsive (not hesitant) character you couldn’t hope to find!

I’m usually only lukewarm on the virtue names, but I have to say that there’s something appealing about ole Prudence. I think that, because it’s so seldom heard nowadays, there’s an air of mystery and intrigue about Prudence. In my pre-Mommy working life, I dealt with a lot of lawyers and legal secretaries over email and I distinctly remember being intrigued by a Prudence who I corresponded with. When I found out that she was a mid-20’s, reasonably attractive, kind of party girl, I was absolutely enchanted with her name.

There’s a “so wrong it’s right” hipness about Prudence . . . at least for me!

Eeeew. No thanks! All I think of is prude and prudish, two words that don’t have happy, nice meanings. This is a hefty moniker, one sure to weigh down any carefree little girl. Hope no one thinks me rude, I am just not feeling it. Although the Beatles made a lovely song using this name, the name itself has not become lovely to me…unlike Jude, which really is great.

The character in ‘Across the Universe’ is quite appealing, actually. All the characters in the flick have Beatle names: Lucy, Jude, Sadie, Max(well), Prudence & Jojo are main characters and even Rita makes a brief appearance. I’m not a Beatle fan myself (by any means) and it’s still one of my favorite flicks. Anyone who hasn’t checked it out yet, should.

Back to Prudence. I think she’s a lovely virtue with a pretty sound and if Pru makes me think insurance, it may be my proximity to Boston that causes that. I still think Pru is cute and Prudence is admirable. I’d love to meet hordes of Prudences! 🙂

First off, woo Katharine and Catherine! Too bad we can’t have anything catchy, since the spellings are so different…all we have is like, Rin Squared. 😀

Prudence! Not being a Beatles fan (don’t shoot me) my initial reaction has nothing to do with the song. In my favourite novel (Misfortune by Wesley Stace), Prudence is a haughty yet dazzlingly beautiful relative who takes over the estate and displays behavior quite opposite to what her name would suggest. So I associate the name with someone beautiful yet untouchable. I love this, but I doubt I would use it in real life, mostly due to the negative reviews it tends to get and the lack of good nicknames. Pru sounds like prune or prude, and Dency is one letter off from Dence, which sounds like dense. It just seems wrong to change the sound of the C to a hard one. :/ Hmm… this would be actually a great one to honour a friend’s mother; her maiden name was Proulx, pronounced Pru. That’s an interesting thought that just came to me. But anyway, Prudence is probably relegated to the middle name slot for me, but I do love it so.