Thanks to Melanie and Kelly for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
Nova literally means new – from the Latin novus.
And yet, Nova isn’t novel.
It ranked in the US Top 1000 as a girl’s name from the 1880s straight into the 1930s.
British actress Nova Pilbeam was born in 1919, and is best known for her roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and Young and Innocent.
In 1919, a nova was observed in the constellation Lyra, which might explain some of those births. American poet Robinson Jeffers wrote a poem about the celestial phenomenon during the same era. A mix of science and current events could be part of the origin of the name Nova.
Even after the baby name Nova exited the US Top 1000, it was always used in small numbers for baby girls in the US and elsewhere.
Wind back the clock to the 1500s. Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe used the phrase de stella nova to describe a new star. It was actually a supernova he observed in the constellation Cassiopeia.
Brahe’s term stuck, but it wasn’t quite accurate.
Astronomically speaking, a supernova is a specific type of explosion. It’s not new at all – it’s the final stage in the evolution of a massive star, like a white dwarf. The star explodes with a burst of energy, briefly shining brighter than ever before – and making Brahe think that he’d witnessed the birth of a new star.
Instead, it will slowly fade away.
The term might have remained obscure, except that WGBH Boston has long produced a science television show called Nova for PBS affiliates in the US.
It’s a long-running, well-respected series. Even if you’ve never seen an episode, chances are that you recognize the name.
Thanks to Brahe, the baby name Nova is as much a night sky name as Luna or Stella.
NATIVE AMERICAN MEANING
The baby name Nova sometimes appears on lists of Native American names, often with the meaning “butterfly chaser” or “chases butterfly” attached.
That seems to be an oft-repeated error. In general, Native American names are challenging, unless you’re of indigenous descent.
ON THE MAP
But the meaning “new” is accurate. And while it’s often found in the new sky, it’s also common on terra firma.
Nova Scotia means “New Scotland.”
The Atlantic coast of Canada was long settled by the Mi’kmaq.
Early in the seventeenth century, French settlers arrived in the area and named their colony Acadia. A few years later, the British Crown granted a charter to Sir William Alexander of Menstrie to create Nova Scotia.
Eventually, the English settlers won out and the name remains in use today.
Bossa nova means “different beat.”
A Brazilian musical style, bossa nova grew out of samba. It became popular in South America and then beyond starting in the late 1950s.
In 1963, Eydie Gorme scored a Top Ten single with “Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” and 72 girls were given the name.
It was just the tiniest bump in usage, because Nova was soon to plummet in use.
THE CHEVY NOVA
One reason the baby name Nova fell out of use?
From 1962 through 1979, and again from 1985 through 1988, Chevrolet manufactured the Chevy Nova. It was a smaller car, practical and compact.
Urban legend maintains that the car sold terribly overseas, particularly in Spanish-speaking countries, because no va translates to “won’t go.” That’s just not true.
But it may help explain why the name drifted to its lowest point by the 1980s and 90s. Sharing your name with a luxury car hits a little different than a modest sedan.
PLANET of the APES
In 1968, a team of astronauts crash-landed on a desolate planet in the big screen adaptation of a novel, Planet of the Apes. They’ve arrive two thousand years in the future, on a planet inhabited by intelligent chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, organized in a strict caste system.
The sole survivor of the crew, George Taylor, is paired with a mute woman. She’s human, though in this world, humans are kept as slaves – or worse. Taylor calls her Nova.
The pair eventually makes their escape, only to discover – spoiler alert – that while Taylor has traveled thousands of years in the future, he’s actually landed on Earth.
The 1968 film was a smash hit and pop culture sensation, launching an entire franchise.
Nova appears in the 1970 sequel, as well as the 2011 Tim Burton remake and the 2017 reboot War for the Planet of the Apes. The latter is a prequel, though, showing Nova as a child. An additional installment is due out in 2024, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.
The name remains mostly flat during this time.
Still, the name never fell out of use entirely.
A few famous people include:
- Nova Peris, the first Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic gold medal as part of the field hockey team in 1996. She later
- American authorNova Ren Suma, known for YA bestsellers like 2015’s The Walls Around Us.
Between the Chevy and the post-apocalyptic movie franchise, it took something very different to spark Nova’s revival.
1995 bestselling novel Where the Heart Is became a 2000 movie adaptation, starring a young Natalie Portman as pregnant Novalee Nation, abandoned by her boyfriend in an Oklahoma Walmart.
In 1995, 22 girls received the name Nova. In 2000, that number jumped to 66. There’s a corresponding rise in the use of Novalee, too, which suggests that the movie boosted the name.
ONCE UPON A TEEN MOM
Then came ABC’s fairy tale adventure Once Upon a Time. It debuted in 2011 and ran for seven seasons.
In March of 2012, during the first season, we meet Nova. She’s an aspiring fairy godmother who falls in love with one of the seven dwarves. In the parallel world of Storybrooke, Maine, Nova is a nun known as Sister Astrid.
But it’s just a single episode – even of a wildly popular show.
Instead, it took that pop culture phenomenon Teen Mom to turbocharge Nova’s comeback.
Cast member Briana DeJesus welcomed daughter Nova in 2011, and continued to appear on various iterations of the series, with her little family, in the coming years.
BY the NUMBERS
In 2011, the baby name Nova was given to 295 girls, returning the US Top 1000 for the first time in decades.
It has continued to gain ever since.
It’s not just the pop culture references combined with vintage cred and the night sky meaning.
We’re wild about girl names with V in the middle, from Ava to Ivy to yes, Nova. It helps, too, that Noah has been a boys’ chart-topping favorite for years.
In fact, Nova is gaining in use for both genders.
It ranked a sky-high #32 for girls in 2022, but also #883 for boys.
Novah, a variant spelling, also charts in the girls’ Top 1000, along with Novalee. November could be another variation of the name Nova, along with similar names like Novella and Novia. It’s bolder than Nora or even Eva, but owes a little something to both.
If you’re looking for a gender-neutral name that speaks to the wonders of science and the romance of the night sky, it’s hard to get much closer than the baby name Nova.
What do you think of the baby name Nova?
First published on January 1, 2015, this post was revised and re-published on June 7, 2023.