Violet is white hot. Cadence is climbing. And Juliet is back on the charts.

Today’s choice combines elements of all three fashionable choices. Thanks to Sophie for suggesting Viola as Name of the Day.

Even before the Garner-Afflecks called their firstborn Violet, the botanical name was racing up the charts. By last year, Violet ranked #184. Viola was unranked, but she’s the original Latin word for the plant with pretty, purplish-bluish blooms. Viola became viole in Old French, and acquired the diminuite “ette” ending – violette. With flower power picks like Lily all the rage, Viola could fit right in.

She also meshes with a second trend: musical choices. Cadence, Harmony and Aria all rank in the US Top 1000. A viola is a string instrument – smaller than a cello; slightly bigger than a violin. Instead of French, we can thank the Italians for this word. It traces back to the Latin vitula. Vitula was a Roman goddess of joy. Over the years, Vitula gave us the words for the humble fiddle and the sophisticated viola. While you’ll usually hear a viola in a symphony orchestra, artists from Kansas to the Goo Goo Dolls have also employed the instrument.

Some say that vee oh la applies only to the musical term while vye oh la is reserved for living things. In practice, the line is not so neatly drawn. (Though if you’re talking to a musician, vee oh la is a safe bet.)

I’m not certain when Viola first came into use as a given name, but we can thank William Shakespeare for some of her history. In his play Twelfth Night, Viola was the shipwrecked heroine who disguises herself as a boy, becomes embroiled in a series of love triangles and somehow puts it all right in the end. Twelfth Night has given us two other popular appellations: Sebastian and Olivia.

It appears that the Bard didn’t invent Viola. Instead, the bones of Twelfth Night were borrowed from earlier works, including an Italian comedy. This likely includes the heroine’s name.

A trio of big screen uses in recent years could’ve boosted Viola:

  • 1998’s Shakespeare in Love nabbed the Oscar for Best Picture. While the film was pure fiction, it featured a young William Shakespeare in love with the wealthy Viola de Lesseps, played by Gwyenth Paltrow;
  • 2006’s She’s the Man translated Twelfth Night to an American high school, with the likable Amanda Bynes playing Viola;
  • Viola Davis is best known for her Tony-award winning performances, but she’s also garnered recognition for her big screen roles, including an Oscar nomination for her work in 2008’s Doubt.

Lop off the V and you arrive at Iola, related to Iole – yet another word for violet, this time the Greek. They’re not quite as wearable.

But Viola might be a perfect choice. She regularly ranked in the Top 100 back in the nineteenth century. (Far outranking Violet!) And given her ties to the botanical, musical and literary worlds, Viola is truly an underused gem.

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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21 Comments

  1. Just wanted to pop in and mention that Shakespeare did not, in fact, get Viola from the Italian comedy on which Twelfth Night is based, Gl’Ingannati–the heroine of that play is called Lelia. The most I could find about where Shakespeare got Viola was some conjecture that he may have heard Violetta in an Italian play and shortened it.

  2. I love Viola. Though I pronounce it with more of a soft O sound. I say (VY-o-LAH). I am also intrigued by Vitula. That would also make a cool choice for a baby.

  3. Oh, I love Viola! Violet was my Auntie, but Viola appeals because of Shakspeare (and the musical thing is an added plus) (Sorry I was gone for a bit, Got surprised with a mini vacation!) Time to play catch-up!

    Viola is sweet, strong and all velvet to say. I absolutely love it. Violet for me, goes in the middle, but Viola would go up front! I think it would be a nice link between my oldest & youngest (if I ever have her), with Sebastian being Leo’s middle, and all. Yep, Viola gets a huge Huzzah! from me! đŸ˜€

  4. Ohh Viola Delphine, thats lovely as does Vioal Saskia Gray. Viola is the more mysterious of the two I agree, I think Violet just tips the balance for me overall as I’m quite a fan of ‘et’ endings, although her ever increasing popularity is a little offputting…

  5. It sounds great, but keep in mind that “viola” means “rapes” in spanish (as in “el me viola” = “he rapes me”), or more widely, “violates” or “breaks” as in “el viola la ley” = “he violates/breaks the law”, so if you’re gonna name your daughter Viola, please don’t take her to any spanish-speaking country, to save her the embarrasment. Just sayin’.

    1. COPED FROM COMMENTS ON BEHINDTHENAME.COM website:

      In Italy the name, which is considered very trendy and feminine nowadays, is pronounced Vee’ola (accent on the O which has an open and short sound, as in God). It means purple, and yes it it is the same name of a musical instrument, it is the name of a flower too, and was used by Shakespeare for one of his best heroines, but for sure it has nothing to do with rape as mentioned in a comment above. In Italian ‘to rape’ is ‘violare’ (Vee’olaray), quite formal and old fashioned expression anyway, the verb is more often used in its common meaning which is ‘to break the rules or the constraints’. Vìola (accent on the I for a totally different sound and word becoming ‘Veeola) corresponds to ‘he rapes’ in this case. By the way formal Italian requires that the name is written Viola and the verb Vìola, with the accent on the i. Of course the name requires the capital V which the verb does not. No possible confusions between the two for those who know the language then.
      The English pronunciation, Vy-ola with the y as in sky sounds unpleasant to Italians because it strictly recalls vaiolo, which is smallpox for us, besides sounding like a deformation of a name that in our perception belongs to us, but of course it is normal that names are adapted to the pronunciation of the cultures they are imported into.
      Funny how a lovely name can get nasty resonances just changing the way it is pronounced.

  6. I love Viola, and Violet. I can’t pick a favorite. I agree with everyone about Viola being more mysterious, while Violet is sweeter. I love the combo Viola Delphine. Having a Dash, though, I don’t think I can use either of these (Dash and Violet are the kids in The Incredibles!)