Tristan and Isolde

He’s a noble knight and a lovestruck swain, brought to our attention by the silver screen.  Is it any wonder he’s so popular?

Thanks to Kelly for suggesting Tristan as Name of the Day.

Long before young Montague ever mooned beneath a balcony, Tristan was a medieval hero, the true love of Iseult.  He shows up in Arthurian legend in the 1100s, but there’s speculation that at least part of his tale is older still.  A variant of his name is engraved on a stone monument dating to the 5th century.

Odds are that Tristan started out as Drest, a Pictish name related to their word for riot.  Worn by ten kings between the 400s and the 800s, plus possibly a saint and a dragon-slayer, though the latter two are more the stuff of local lore.  Drest was sometimes written Drust and Latinized as Drustanus.  In Welsh, he survives as Drystan, but it is believed the French altered him to more closely resemble their word triste – sad, a fitting descriptor of his tale.  In Medieval England, he became Tristram, but he’s Tristan in modern French and English.

Back to the love story.  Tristan was a well-born knight, sent off to fetch the King of Cornwall’s bride-to-be – the fair Isuelt.  The pair fall helplessly, head-over-heels in love, helped along by a magic potion.  Most of the tellings end unhappily, often with deception and death, but a few are slightly less grim.

Versions of the pair’s story are found throughout medieval literature.  Some scholars have speculated that the lovers’ names have been tacked on to several stories, a mix of borrowings handed down from earlier traditions and multiple local tales.

In any case, enthusiasm for the duo has scarcely waned.  Richard Wagner based his 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde on a German translation of the story.  Tristan appears in the 2004 movie King Arthur, and James Franco starred in the title role opposite Sophia Myles in 2006’s Tristan & Isolde.

Despite the enduring appeal of the romance, Tristan wasn’t much in vogue as a boy’s name, possibly for the same reasons parents avoided Romeo.

Today, it’s a different story – you’ll hear this one everywhere.  Tristan ranked #81 in the US in 2008.  The following variant spellings also appeared in the US Top 1000:

  • Tristen
  • Tristin
  • Triston
  • Tristian
  • Trystan

The Tris- names caught on partly for style.  He first appeared in the Top 1000 in 1971, the era of Kevin and Brian, and climbed into the 1980s, along with Justin and Ryan.

But his big boost came in 1994, when Brad Pitt played Tristan – a man in love with a woman meant for someone else – in Legends of the Fall.  Pitt’s appealing character met up with popular picks like Brandon, Austin and Christian and  Tristan peaked at #68 in 1996.

Post-flick, the name faded, but style trends buoyed him up.  By 2008, he’d climbed back to #81.

Today, file Tristan under those appealing names that new parents think are quite rare, but actually are heard with some frequency.  Like Logan, Isaiah or Wyatt – few of us grew up with boys answering to those names, so they feel different, even though today they’d be heard on most playgrounds in the US.  (And Canada, Iceland, Belgium, Denmark, Australia and the UK, too!)

Overall, he’s an intriguing figure, but you won’t be the first to discover him.

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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What do you think?


  1. I love that the name Tristan has such a long history, but I’m not a huge fan of the name myself. I too prefer Isolde/Ysolde/Iseult, which is on our long list for if we have another girl. The Tristan of the love story — like many of the characters found in Arthurian legends — I find rather annoying, both in his perfections and in his imperfections. My favourite Tristan is the young veterinary assistant found in James Herriot’s hysterical books, and he was named after the Wagner character. Interestingly, the 2006 film removed the magical love potion element from the tale, thereby making Tristan and Isolde’s romantic affair a purely adulterous matter.

    Annie Mouse, your post made me laugh out loud!

  2. How cool too read this post today…. I am the Gramma to “Tristan”, who turns one year old today! He is the brother of “Hayden”. My daughter chose both names, very deliberately for the reason that they are not too popular, but are trendy. She wants to be trendy, adores the latest fashions, has the latest iPod, etc, etc. I have only heard the names occassionally used, so a ranking that is not in the top 30 or so is probably not going to fall into the “Jason & Jennifer” or “Ashley & Ryan” category.

  3. I’ve always adored the name Tristan. I don’t exactly recall where I heard it originally [maybe just read it in a name book?], but I did love it *before* I knew of the Tristan & Iseult/Isolde story, and before Legends of the Fall. The only thing keeping me from using it, is that I can’t think of a nickname for it that I like [nicknames are a must in my family] — but it’s one of the few names on our list that my mom actually likes, so that’s a bonus.

  4. I quite like Tristan, though my main association is with Charlie Cox’s Tristan from “Stardust”, the 2007 movie.

    It’s getting too popular for my tastes, unfortunately. And, while this wouldn’t normally be a problem: a lovely name becoming popular and well-known, I don’t like all the ridiculous misspellings. Grr!

  5. Tristan isn’t a favorite of mine on a number of levels. Don’t love the tale of woe, don’t love the sound of the crackling ts and the hissy s, and it makes me think first of Trista and Tristina (know women with these names). Despite the popularity of it, I don’t know any Tristans, but if I meet one, I’m sure I’ll look for a pair of dimples, some cute curls, big eyes, or a lovely disposition to admire with a compliment to mom, rather than his name.

  6. I like Tristan, but I kind of like Isolde better! I met an adorable little boy named Tristan (my cousin’s godson) a few years ago. We baby sat him while I was visiting her, and he had two doting girls cooing over his adorableness. I am not sure I would use it now, though, as has gotten too popular fur my taste. I would have used it when it was more obscure, but not now. I like my names to be a tad bit more unusual1

  7. “However Tristan always has sounded to me like a name the mom learned while watching daytime TV or reading romance novels during her pregnancy. ”

    I kind of agree. Something about this name just seems too obviously romantic somehow. As if it could be the go-to name for your good-looking, diamond in the rough hero of a romance novel/movie.

    The first time I heard it on a real child was just a month or two ago at our local library, surprisingly enough. He was the twin brother to a Maura. (That same day there was an Erasmus at story time!)

    1. Wow – Erasmus! There’s a religious name without going Biblical… and I kinda like it! Sure beats Tristan in my book.

  8. I have a friend named Trista, ~40 like me. It just seems like an alternative to Krista.

    However Tristan always has sounded to me like a name the mom learned while watching daytime TV or reading romance novels during her pregnancy. It seems even more melodramatic than Romeo or Heathcliff.

  9. I like Tristan for a boy, but a relation used Tristen for a girl. Her father named her after the actor who played Robert Scorpio on General Hospital, who spells it properly: Tristan Rogers. She in turn has named her baby girl Jayla. This is the yooneek branch of the family.

    1. Oh dear!

      Still, given the long use of Kristen/Kristin, I can imagine lots of little girls wearing Tristan … too bad!

  10. I like Tristan, but not enough to use. Oddly, I don’t like Trista for girl. Tristan is a nice name with a history that really appeals to me. I like it enough to put it on a list of considerations, though it’d be ranked more from 20 and below.So, there are a lot more names that I’d consider. A columnist in my newspaper is named Tristan.He looks to be around his early twenties. I do like Iseult quite a lot