A few weeks back, Emmy Jo got us thinking about girls’ names that are both pretty and ugly. To borrow a term from the French, they’re jolie-laid – beautiful because of their flaws. It’s easy to love the lyrical Olivia, the mellifluous Melisande. But there are scores of names for girls that rather harsh and yet terribly attractive at the same time.

In the midst of a scorching early summer heatwave, we’re looking north, to Scandinavia for today’s Name of the Day: Signe.

The letters of the name bring to mind the French word for sign, from the Latin signum. But the name is completely unrelated. In Old Norse, Signý meant “new victory” and was worn by several mythological figures. Sigr means victory and was the root of many a legendary name – one Signý had a twin called Sigmund and married a fellow called Siggeir. Another Signý was the daughter of Sigar – Siggeir’s nephew.

That’s one heck of a family tree to keep straight.

Signý’s adventures are several, but despite her bravery and faithfulness, she usually meets a gruesome end but remains celebrated in the arts. A popular folk song from the Middle Ages celebrated the love of Hagbard and Signhild. Composer Richard Wagner picked up elements of the tale for The Valkyrie, part of his Ring cycle, and called her Sieglinde. She pops up in the odd painting, too.

Pronounced SIG nee and now most commonly written as Signe, the name has been in steady use in Scandinavia for centuries. In fact, it popped up in the US regularly in the late 1800s and early 1900s during the peak of immigration from Norway, Sweden and Denmark. For baby girls born in the US, Signe reached #502 in 1892; the related Sigrid peaked at #682 in 1895. Neither name has been in the Top 1000 since 1917.

In Scandinavia, however, both names remain quite popular. In 2006, it was the 13th most popular name in Denmark, and remains a Top 100 choice in Norway, too.

It takes a bit of a rebel to send a pint-sized Signe off to school with Isabella, Sophia and Samantha. But after years of aggressively pretty girls’ names, there is something to be said for an appellation with a bit of Viking warrior spirit.

We should also consider the increasing popularity of Ingrid. Rarely used in the US prior to Ingrid Bergman’s arrival in Hollywood in the 1940s, today it has risen to #626. Some of that may be parents of Scandinavian descent searching for an appropriate heritage name. And others might be attempting to channel old Hollywood glamour without resorting to the hyper-popular Ava, Lauren and Audrey.

Those influences aside, we are hearing more girls’ names these days that are frills-free and unapologetically strong. Freya, Niamh, Harriet, Imogen and Martha are all in the Top 100 in the UK. While not every trend crosses the pond, we suspect that at least some popular girls’ names will start to sound less like ballerinas and more like battle maidens.

It’s one possible antidote to the last-names-first surname craze.

And so, if you are adventurous enough to set off for worlds unknown in a longship with a dragon figurehead leading your way, perhaps Signe is the right name for your daughter.

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. My aunt was named Signe Falstad. She was a formidable serious-minded Norwegian-American woman who raise a large family. Her character definitely fit her name.

    I should mention that the proper Norwegian pronunciation is Sing-ne. The g is silent. But our Signe was born in American of Norwegian parents so she will always be Sig-nee to us.

    1. Thank you for the note on pronunciation, John! Have any of the original Signe’s descendants used the name?

  2. Our 1-month old daughter (my blog title) is Signe Moore – We’re not Scandinavian, or even Northern European for that matter bit we searched long and hard for a distinctive, strong, independent and beautiful name that not every other Sophia or MAdeline would have.
    We think we set her up pretty good 🙂

  3. I went to school in elementary school with an Ingrid Elsdoerfer and a Sigrid Voelker. Very German girls. In junior high, there was a girl named Sigrid Simpson a grade below me, and high school had Ingrid Johannes and Ingrid Finnegan, one in my grade and one two above me.

    I also remember some insipid Raffi song about children around the world. One of the lines ended with “… and Ingrid lives in Germany”

  4. Kayt, did you really? I went to high school with a Sigrid – I’m fairly certain she was Thai, or in any case, not Scandinavian. She wore the name really well, but she was also drop dead gorgeous, so I suppose she would’ve made Ethel look good. 🙂

    Hmmm … Signe and Sydney. Almost inevitably, Lola! It’s the short coming for almost any shorter given name, though – with the exception of a few really distinctive choices, I imagine every Abby gets called Debbie and every Callie gets called Kelly. Are there any mangle proof names out there? I’ll have to think about it. Rachel, maybe, or James.

    That *is* a point in favor of some of your picks, though. Three syllables make it more likely the name will stand out. I love, love, love Ottilie. In fact, I’m putting her on the calendar for July 10’s Name of the Day. Very distinctive!

    How funny that your MiL goes by Sue! I’d be Pandora without apology, but then, I didn’t go through middle school answering questions about letting misery into the world. 😉

  5. Would Signe be confused when spoken with the oh so trendy Sydney? I think Siogne’s lovely, Woe that I had the right ancestry for her! (and she rhymes with my Scottish surname!). She’s atouch awkward but I find her as appealing as some of my favorites: Ottilie/Ottoline, Edith, Lucretia, Mathilda (only that spelling appeals) & Pandora (which is my MIL’s name(she goes by Sue).

  6. That’s so funny! I went to school with two Sigrids and three Ingrids in different schools on different sides of the country. I had no idea they were rare. Signe is awkward looking, but really nice at the same time.