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. If I have a son, I’m going to call him Teddy after my Grandfather’s nickname, which will probably only be used as a family nickname or for when he’s young. My Grandfather’s actual name was Timothy, which I already know too many people of the same name. So as a formal/grown up name I think Tristan will make a nice match, something historical yet trendy, and just as linked to Teddy as Timothy was eighty years ago for my great grand parents.

  2. I spotted a girl Tristan- but spelled Tristen. Is this popular/normal? I have never heard of girls named that before.

  3. Tristan and Romeo don’t sound strong enough to me. I have known guys with both these names, and they were nice regular guys, but the names sound weak to me – not masculine enough. I agree about the slightly lispy quality of Tristan.
    The Tristan I know has a brother Valentine. I prefer Valentine!
    I love the look and “vibe” of Isolde, but the sound of it when said out loud is not appealing somehow. Pity.

  4. Around 5 years ago I met a young couple and their young son at church. I complemented them on his name and asked if they were opera fans. They looked at me like I was nuts, mumbled something about Brad Pitt and found an excuse to walk away…

    Anyways, I’m not a fan of the myth or the lispy quality of the name name.