Thanks to Melissa for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
I’ve assumed – pretty much forever – that Stella comes from the Latin word for star.
And it turns out that’s maybe, possibly, kind-of, sort-of true.
Our story begins with a martyr and a misprint, weaves its way through literature, and eventually leads to the name that Marlon Brando screams in an iconic Hollywood moment.
LAST NAMES FIRST
You might stumble on someone with the surname Stella. A Roman senator, circa the year 100, answered to Lucius Arruntius Stella.
It’s sometimes heard as an Italian surname, possibly derived from a nickname, a given name, or maybe because someone lived in a house marked by a star symbol. There are a handful of places by the name, too, which could inspire a surname.
ESTELLE AND MARY
Way back in the third century, it’s said that Estelle was born to a powerful pagan family. She converted to Christianity, and was condemned to death by her father.
Except the earliest references to Saint Estelle appear in the Middle Ages, so it’s tough to pin down the details of her story.
Even her name is subject to debate. The original form, Eustella or Eustalia, points to a different origin, the Greek eustales – well-groomed.
Religion gives us a second origin story.
Catholics have referred to Jesus’s mother as Stella Maris since at least the Middle Ages – but it might be a typo. In the fourth century, St. Jerome called her stilla maris – a drop in the sea.
In any case, the image and title stuck. By the eighth century, the hymn “Ave maris stella” was catching on. It translates to “Hail, star of the sea.” You’ll find seaside parishes, schools, and at least one monastery referred to by the name all over the world.
SIDNEY, MISTRAL, DICKENS
It took literature to transform this into a given name.
- Elizabethan-era poet Sir Philip Sidney was among the first to use it as a personal name. He penned the “Astrophil and Stella” sonnets in the 1580s. If you unpack the Latin, Astrophil is a a lover – phil – of stars – astro, making Stella the logical choice for his object of desire.
- Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian wrote the pastoral Estelle in 1788. It’s likely this work that encouraged French parents to embrace the name. The composer Hector Berlioz fell wildly in love with Estelle Fornier. Fornier was born in 1797, suggesting some parents’ naming choices were influenced by the poem.
- In the late nineteenth century, the French poet Frédéric Mistral embraced Estelle as the patron saint of the Felibrige, a literary and cultural association dedicated to preserving and promoting the Provençal language. Estela means star in Occitan.
- Now back to England. First published as a serial in the 1860s, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations combined the two threads into one name. Estella Havisham toyed with Pip’s affections – and became one of the best known literary characters of the era.
Estella ranked just outside the US Top 100 in the late nineteenth century, suggesting that the novel proved influential.
D’ORO AND ARTOIS
Stella, in its current form, was well-established by the time the US started recording name data. From 1880 into the 1920s, the name appeared in the US Top 100.
It wasn’t just a personal name, either.
From 1879 to 1880, the US minted a $4 coin called the Stella, with a woman’s profile on one side and a large star on the other. They never circulated.
During the 1926 Christmas season, a Belgian brewer named their winter beer Stella Artois, inspired by the seasonal star. The Artois Brewery has long since been owned by a larger corporation, but the beer remains widely popular, year-round.
Similarly, the Stella D’oro – gold star – Biscuit Company was founded by an Italian baker in the Bronx in 1932. Like the beer, the cookies have kept this word-name in front of our eyes for generations.
Just as the name started to fade, leaving the US Top 100 in 1924, it became a favorite for fictional characters.
- 1918’s Stella Maris starred Mary Pickford as an invalid who ultimately finds true love.
- Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1923 novel Stella Dallas is about a woman who sacrifices everything for her daughter’s happiness. Multiple film adaptations and a long-running radio show followed.
- Jazz standard “Stella by Starlight” was composed for 1944’s The Uninvited, the tale of a haunted mansion by the sea. Lyrics were added later, and it has been oft-recorded and performed since.
Perhaps the best known is Tennessee Williams’ 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire and the film that followed. Marlon Brando bellowing “Stella!” is a cinematic classic.
BY THE NUMBERS
Streetcar didn’t reverse the name’s decline. By the 1950s, the name was in the 300s and falling. After 1987, it left the US Top 1000 entirely.
But it didn’t last.
In 1995, just 125 girls received the name. In 1996, the number rose to 149 – and one of those girls was the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas.
ALL THE ELLAS
At the same time the Griffith-Banderas family chose the name, Gabriella, Isabella, and just plain Ella were leaping up the popularity charts.
Today they’re joined by Briella, Ariella, and Bella, too – and just plain Ella is the most popular of them all.
By 1998, the name returned to the US Top 1000. How Stella Got Her Groove Back, a 1996 bestseller turned 1998 movie starring Angela Bassett and Taye Diggs, added to the buzz.
It broke into the Top 500 in 2002.
That’s about the time Stella McCartney, daughter of legendary musician Paul, launched her career as a fashion designer, lending some high style glam to the name.
TOP 100 COOL
By the time reality star Tori Spelling welcomed her daughter in 2008, the name had returned to the Top 200.
In 2018, it reached an all-time high of #38.
Despite that high ranking, I think Stella still feels cool. Maybe it’s all the pop culture references, or possibly it’s the meaning that shines through. It’s nickname-proof and literary, a name with history and vintage style, but fresh and just different enough for parents today.
What do you think of Stella? Do you know any girls with this name?
Originally published on February 9, 2010, this post was updated and revised substantially on March 4, 2020.