Thanks to Natalie for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
It’s easy to hear the baby name Ursula and think of the sea. But this name’s meaning is very much on terra firma.
It comes from the Latin ursa – bear. Plenty of names refer to animals, and bear names abound.
But Ursa Major and Ursa Minor have a story all their own.
A surprising number of cultures and mythologies have a tale that goes like this: hunters are pursuing an animal. Divine powers intervene, and the creature is transformed into a constellation.
In Greek myth, Zeus – king of the gods – pursues the beautiful nymph Callisto. They have a son together, Arcas. When Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, discovers the affair, she turns Callisto into a bear as revenge. Arcas is hunting when he finds his mother in the woods, but before he can kill her, Zeus scoops them both up into the night sky: Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Several Native American traditions also refer to the constellation as something like the “Great Bear” or just the bear. Finnish tradition did the same. Other cultures see wolves or crabs or something else. (And some gave a completely different story to the stars.)
But the tie between this name and bears isn’t new or fleeting.
The given name Ursula is a diminutive form of the Latin word ursa, meaning – roughly – “little female bear.”
More than the night sky, the legend of Saint Ursula and her maidens explains the name’s widespread use.
This Ursula is a (probably) legendary virgin princess of the 4th century.
Here’s the story: sometime in the 300s, in England, Ursula was a Christian princess. Her father bethrothed her to a pagan king in a faraway land.
She agreed to the marriage, but devout Urusla insisted she’d first make a pilgrimage to Rome.
Ursula made it as afar as Cologne, where she met her death at the hands of the Huns, becoming a Christian martyr.
This part of the story seems credible, if difficult to verify.
Here’s where things turn fantastic.
It’s said that Ursula sailed with 11,000 handmaidens, and the Huns dispatched all 11,001 of them. Their bones are still on display in Cologne’s Basilica of St. Ursula.
The bones are real, but it appears that Ursula’s party was far smaller – perhaps eleven handmaidens. An inscription reading XI. M. V. – eleven martyred virgins – may have been misinterpreted as eleven thousand. Or maybe medieval stories just grew the size of her party as the story was told and retold.
The Order of Saint Ursula, better known as the Ursulines, was established in 1572 in Milan.
In 1865, Polish Julia Ledóchowska was born in then-Austria. She founded convents across Europe and advocated for Poland’s independence, founding an order of the Ursulines and taking the name Maria Ursula. She’s now also remembered as Saint Ursula.
But it’s the first story that explains the name’s success across Europe. The name is Úrsula in Spanish; Orsola in Italian; Urszula in Polish; and Ursule in French – to name a few. It’s been in general use in Sweden and Denmark since the fifteenth century.
Her feast day is celebrated on October 21st.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS of SOLITUDE
Like many a saintly superstar of medieval legend, the figure spread the name Ursula and kept it in general use.
Some notable people have answered to Ursula, along with plenty of fictional women.
In 1967, author Gabriel Garcia Marquez penned his well-known novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez introduced us to Ursula Iguaran, the wife of José Arcadio Buendía, and their descendants.
It remains a widely influential novel, and Marquez won a Nobel Prize for Literature.
The author DH Lawrence also used the name for more than one character.
Swiss actress Ursula Andress made the name internationally famous in 1962. That’s the year she played Honey Ryder – the first big-screen Bond girl – in Dr. No.
Thanks to glamorous actress Ursula Andress, the name saw a brief resurgence in the 1960s.
Around the same time, Austrian actress Ursula Ledersteger decided to drop her name in favor of the more accessbile Barbara Valentin.
URSULA K. LE GUIN
Arguably the most famous Ursula of the moment is groundbreaking author Ursula K. Le Guin. Born in California in 1929, her first novel was published thirty years later. She’s famous for her works of speculative fiction and science fiction, but also penned short stories, poetry, children’s books, and more.
Her best known novels are 1968’s A Wizard of Earthsea and 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness. She collected Hugo and Nebula awards for her work, as well as honors from the National Book Foundation, the US Library of Congress, and more.
One of the places she invented for her stories bears the name Orsinia. Like her name, it’s derived from the Latin word for bear.
There’s one more real woman who comes to mind: Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox.
But if you hear Ursula and think “villain,” well … you’re forgiven.
It’s the name of Phoebe’s evil twin on Friends.
But long before that, an animated sea witch made the name dastardly.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid propelled the name Ariel to new heights in 1989. Up until then, the mermaid was nameless.
The traditional version of the fairytale includes a sea witch, who uses magic to turn the mermaid’s fish tail into legs – also nameless. Disney dubbed her Urusla, and made her a purple-skinned, white-haired, tentacle-waving menace. Technically, she’s a cecaelia, a woman-octopus hybrid.
In the fairytale, the witch casts her spell and retreats to the background. But in the movie, she’s a major bad-guy with a thirst for power.
While the name wasn’t particularly popular when the movie came out, there was a sharp drop in the use after The Little Mermaid debuted.
In 1988, the year before the movie’s release, Americans welcomed 128 Ursulas. By 1992, that number dropped to just 63. And as of 2022, the number had plummeted to 25.
Of course, 2023 brought the release of a live action Little Mermaid, with Melissa McCarthy tempting Ariel with her every wish – at a great, perilous price.
BEYOND the SEA
Disney’s sea witch and Friends‘ evil twin came at a moment very few parents were naming their daughters Ursula. Nothing has changed since – if anything, the name continues to edge closer to obscurity.
And yet, if you’re looking for an antique name that everyone knows but nobody is using? The baby name Ursula has potential.
It lacks a great nickname. European picks, like the German Uschi, don’t import well. Ulla doesn’t flow. One option: consider variations like Ursella. Same sound, but now the nickname Ella/Ellie might be a possibility. Or, as a reader suggested, Zuzu! Which is bold and wonderful, and might just be what Ursula needs to make it more accessbile.
It’s an unconventional choice, but one with fascinating roots and an interesting style. And while it’s rare in English-speaking countries as well as much of the world, Ursula is also the kind of name everyone instantly recognizes.
Now if only you can stop them from singing “Poor, Unfortunate Souls” when you introduce your daughter.
What do you think of the baby name Ursula? Is this name gone for good?
This post was originally published on March 15, 2009. It was substantially revised and re-posted on October 26, 2015 and again on October 28, 2023.