The baby name Tallulah marries Native American history to Irish legend and a Hollywood icon, too.
Thanks to Lise for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
PRINCESS of ABUNDANCE
There’s more than one spelling for the baby name Tallulah, and two completely separate origins.
Let’s begin in Ireland.
Spelled Talulla, it’s the name of Celtic saint. The original was closer to Tuilelaith, from the elements tuile – abundance – and flaith – princess or lady. Put it together, and Talulla is the princess or lady of abundance.
That sounds an auspicious meaning.
The historical figure, however, is all but lost to time. St. Tallula doesn’t make most official saints’ lists, though she’s recorded among the abbesses of Kildare, serving until her death in 885.
At least some of the use of the girl’s name seems to trace to the Irish saint.
CHOCTAW or CREEK
Visit Georgia, and you can still see Tallulah Falls.
The waterfalls are said to get their name from a Native American source, either Choctaw or Creek. The first possible meaning is usually given as leaping water, which makes sense. It might also come from the Creek word for town.
While they’re oft-repeated origins, both are hard to confirm. The Choctaw word for water is oka. It doesn’t lead naturally to Tallulah. The Creek word for town – italwa – is slightly closer, but only slightly. (And while italwa is oft-cited, it’s not listed in any online dictionary available as of this update.)
Besides the waterfalls, there’s the Tallulah River, Gorge, Dam, and Tallulah Falls Lake. The lake is a man-made reservoir created by the construction of the Tallulah Falls Dam.
From the 1850s through the 1950s, the Tallulah Falls Railway brought visitors from across the state, as well as North Carolina, to visit the park.
There’s a state park there today; chances are you’ve seen it without even knowing it. It stood in for Wakanda in Avengers: Infinity War. The park is thanked in the film’s closing credits.
So it’s possible that someone from Georgia, or visiting Georgia, might be persuaded to choose the name for a daughter – whether they knew about the Irish saint or the Native American origins or not.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened.
American actress Tallulah Bankhead was born in Alabama in 1902.
Bankhead’s family was politically prominent. Her grandfather was a US Senator; her dad served as Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Flamboyant and acid-tongued, her outspoken support of the civil right movement put her at odds with her family.
The actress lit up the silver screen and the London stage in the 1930s and 40s. She was a scandalous figure, with constant talk of her romantic attachments, politics leanings and exploits at parties.
Speculation about the meaning and origin of the name Tallulah was rife during her heyday. (Check out this 1941 article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
The actress often explained that she was named after her paternal grandmother, Tallulah James Brockman. Her grandmother, in turn, was named for the waterfall, because her parents had honeymooned there.
Bankhead remained in the public eye for many decades thanks to television appearances, until her death in 1968.
All these years later, she remains a familiar figure. Most recently, Natsha Lyonne played her in a 2021 film on Hulu.
Pop culture kept the name alive.
1976’s gangster spoof/musical comedy (really!) Bugsy Malone cast child actors as Prohibition-era mobsters. Jodie Foster played Tallulah, girlfriend to Bugsy himself, played by Scott Baio.
Rotten Tomatoes calls it “delightfully bizarre.”
BY the NUMBERS
It would be expected that Ms. Bankhead – and the movie character – might be just enough to push the baby name Tallulah into occasional use.
But US Census records give us a handful of women named Tallulah before the actress rose to fame. Like her grandmother, they may have been inspired by the popular Georgia destination. (A town in Louisiana bears the name, too.)
It rose in use modestly during the 1980s and 90s. But the name’s real surge has been in the twenty-first century, though the baby name Tallulah has not yet ranked in the US Top 1000.
What explains the name’s recent rise?
We might be back to Hollywood once more.
BRUCE and DEMI
Former Hollywood super couple Bruce Willis and Demi Moore chose wildly unconventional names for their three daughters: Rumer, Scout, and Tallulah. Their youngest arrived in 1994, long after Demi’s daring Vanity Fair photo shoot while expecting Rumer.
In 2002, before he became Dr. McDreamy on Grey’s Anatomy, actor Patrick Dempsey welcomed daughter Talula Fyfe. He and wife Jillian Fink later added twin boys Darby and Sullivan to their family. It’s a nicely coordinated sibset – though far less attention-getting than the Moore Willis girls.
TALULA DOES THE HULA FROM HAWAII
Two high-profile birth announcements might’ve been enough to send the name climbing.
But a bigger leap came a few years later.
The name dominated headlines when a New Zealand couple found themselves in court. They’d named their daughter “Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii.” In 2008, a judge ordered them to allow the girl to change it.
It’s hard to say how parents in New Zealand and neighboring Australia reacted to the story, but in the US? The name continued to rise.
BY the NUMBERS
With multiple spellings, deciphering the popularity of the baby name Tallulah requires some addition.
As of 2021:
- 12 were Tallula.
- 19 girls were named Talula, the sparest spelling.
- 20 received the name spelled Talulla.
- An additional 50 answered to Talulah.
- 245 girls were named Tallulah, the dominant spelling.
As of 2021, it took 255 births for a name to break into the US Top 1000. And Annabella, with just 254 births, snuck onto the list at #1000.
That means that the baby name Tallulah could easily tip over into the rankings … and, if spellings were combined, could already be on the list.
ONE to WATCH
The numbers alone make the baby name Tallulah one to watch.
But it also stands out for a few other reasons.
British actress Talulah Riley has raised the name’s profile, taking on roles like Vivienne Westwood in 2022 FX miniseries Pistol.
Speaking of the UK, Tallulah is rising in use in England. And while not every name crosses the pond, that’s sometimes an indicator that American parents will take notice.
Sound-wise, it’s easy to imagine Tallulah as a mix of shorter favorites like Lucy and Luna, wrapped up with longer names like Olivia. In some ways, it’s a successor to Penelope – a name with long history that’s just the tiniest bit offbeat.
Overall, it makes for a different name – the kind that stands out in a good way. If you’re after something that feels surprising and fresh, but isn’t invented or modern, Tallulah belongs on your list.
What do you think of the baby name Tallulah?
First published on May 17, 2008, this post was revised substantially and re-posted on January 28, 2013, and again on January 7, 2023.
I have an affection for the name Tula or Tulah (possibly as a middle name, I’m not sure I’m bold enough to choose it at a first name), and all I can find about that is short for Tallulah. Throwing that out there as a possible nn for anyone thinking about Tallulah.
Kimberly Wieser Roppolo says
Ran across your site researching “Tallulah,” but wanted to let you know that “Okla humma” means “Red People” in Choctaw, “Okla” meaning people (such as in “Chata Okla” for Choctaw People as in a proper name or “Inklish Okla” for the British) and “humma” meaning red.
Dr. Kimberly Wieser Roppolo
Thanks for the correction, Kimberly.
Being of Creek descent, and having visited Tallulah falls on many occassions, I have a wee bit of insight on this one. Tallulah was an american indian girl who threw herself from the top of the waterfall as a martyr. She was forbidden to marry who she wished and would rather die than comply. Being currently pregnant, I cannot remember all the details (pregnancy brain!) but that is the basic story.
I wouldn’t use the name, but more so because I have a little sister named Talia, and I think it sounds too matchy matchy. I much prefer to give my child a unique name even if it’s just unique within our own family.
Waltzing More Than Matilda says
The Creek word italwa probably is the basis for the town’s name – I know that many Australian place names are derived from Aboriginal words, and sometimes they look very different from the original word. They become changed into something that sounds good (or at least pronounceable) to English-speakers.
One of the minor members of the royal family has a daughter named Tallulah, and so does ’80s pop star Simon Le Bon (born the same year as Tallulah Willis); in a lot of ways I think of this as a British celebrity baby name just as much as an American one (despite the US origins).
I know quite a few little girls named Tallulah here – it’s never ranked, but doesn’t seem too uncommon either.
I personally like this name a lot.I don’t know if I would use it, but it does have a lot of appeal. The meanings are beautiful and interesting. It is a different name without being pretentious or weird
It has this lovely, peaceful sound to me.Tallulah Skye is a very nice combination
Finally– validation for my middle name! I was born in 1962, on January 6th. My father, a devout Catholic who named his children after saints, counsulted the family bible to find out what saint’s day that was. (There was a glossary of saints in the back.) Lo and behold, it was Talullah (spelled that way). That became my middle name. I never saw it in any other book of saints, or otherwise, other than Tallulah (different spelling) Bankhead, and now, one of Demi & Bruce’s kids.