Old olive oil factory
Old olive oil factory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Olivia is a smash hit, a Shakespearean name in the US Top Ten since 2001, and equally popular through the Western World.  But now it is her humbler cousin in the spotlight, thanks to Drew Barrymore’s new arrival.

Our Baby Name of the Day is Olive.

Olive feels retro, but she is a relatively new name.  Oliva was a Late Latin appellation, worn by a second century saint. The spelling of Oliver was influenced by olive, but he’s actually derived from the same Germanic and Norse roots as Alvar and Olav.  And smash-hit Olivia was created by Shakespeare for his comedy Twelfth Night, influenced by Oliver, Oliva, olive, or maybe all of the above.

Like many a nature name, she immediately brings to mind the tree and the fruit.  This puts her in the company of Laurel and Rowan, as well as Clementine and Apple.

Olive comes from the Greek elaia, probably ultimately from an older language.

That tracks, because olive trees have been cultivated for eons.  Horace and Homer wrote about olive trees; the original fuel for the Olympic eternal flame was olive oil.  There are dozens of mentions in the Bible.  An olive leaf in the mouth of a dove tells Noah that it is safe to dock his Ark.  The Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, is of major significance in Judaism and Christianity.

Olive branches have a long history of use, too.  In Ancient Greece they were worn by brides and the winners of athletic competitions.  Virgil associated them with peace, and in Christian symbolism, the dove often carries an olive branch in his beak – a nod to Noah, but now a widely understood image of peace.  It’s the same reason the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States has an olive branch in one of his talons.

So while Olive is a word name, we have plenty of associations layer on, lending her something of a virtue name vibe.

Her heyday in the late nineteenth century also makes her feel like a gentle antique, a successor to Emma or Grace, or a sister for sweetly vintage choices like Ada, Beatrice, and Mabel.  And she was pretty popular at the time, appearing in the Top 100 from 1880 through 1903 and remained in the Top 200 until 1924.

Her hibernation has been long.  She left the Top 1000 after 1950.  For years, the most famous bearer was Olive Oyl.  Popeye’s sweetheart actually existed in a comic strip for a decade before the Sailor Man made it on the scene.  Just like Felix the Cat and Betty Boop, parents might have paused before considering Olive thanks to the familiarity of the animated figure.

But her revival could be nearly as swift:

  • There was 1999’s Olive, the Other Reindeer.
  • Then there was Olive Snook, Kristen Chenoweth’s character on short-lived fantasy crime dramaPushing Daisies.
  • In 2010’s Easy A, Emma Stone played Olive Penderghast, the smart girl wrapped up in a scandal in a modern reboot of The Scarlet Letter.

In 2007, Olive re-entered the US Top 1000 at #989, and she’s climbed quickly, reaching #416 in 2011.  It’s not quite as dramatic a climb as Isabella, but it is close.

Now with such a high-powered celeb birth in the headlines, Olive could catch on fast.

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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. Definitely a Marmite name. I personally love it, but most people I know absolutely hate it. That doesn’t really bother me, though – at least no one will beat me to it!

  2. Olive was our original ‘GIRL’ choice…we were stuck on it.
    The few we told did not like it, not that their opinion ultiamately mattered.
    But then we realized our last name is ‘Long’ and ‘Olive Long’ just did not sound right…so we went with Beatrix.

    We still are leaving it on the list for #2 though!

  3. The Oliv-family is another group of names I dislike as a whole. Olive was my great-grandmother’s middle name; her first name was Myrtle, which I happen to think is one of the most unattractive names out there. I don’t know if that soured me on Oliv- names, or if I would’ve liked them if her first name hadn’t been something else. Who knows…

  4. Olive is my great grandmother’s name. She’s still alive and such a character, so my family is more accepting of the name’s quirkiness. Unfortunately, one of my cousins has already snagged the name for her little girl. Otherwise, I’d use it in a heartbeat!

  5. I absolutely adore Olive! I love its symbolism of peace and the way it sounds. Olive is one of two finalists for my baby due in a couple of weeks so I’m so thankful that you posted this!