Tessa started out as a sweet nickname for Theresa. Today, it ranks far higher than the original.
Thanks to Christine for suggesting one of her favorites as our Baby Name of the Day.
Tessa: Theresa’s Cousin
Theresa belongs with the classics. It likely comes from the Greek word for harvest. Therasia appears in the historic record as early as the 300s, mostly used in Spain and Portugal. The sixteenth century Saint Teresa of Avila helped the name spread throughout Europe.
Theresa ranked in the US Top 100 from the 1910s into the 1970s, never topping the charts but always steadily in use.
Pinning down the first use of Tessa in English proves challenging. Thomas Hardy’s 1891 literary classic Tess of the d’Urbervilles puts Tess in use by the nineteenth century. It’s understood as a nickname – she’s called “Mistress Teresa” in at least one place.
Even earlier, George Eliot gave the name to a character in Romola. Eliot’s novel was published in the 1860s, but took place in Renaissance Florence. And here’s a break-through, because the name Tessa appears in Florentine tax records of the 1420s. Contessa appears, too, but Theresa/Teresa is absent.
More proof that the naming public perceived this one as Italian? Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers gave us a romance involving a Venetian girl by the name and – as the title implies – a Venetian gondolier.
At peak Theresa in the US, the go-to short form might have been Tracy – or Tracey or Tracie. James Bond’s wife (yes, really!) introduces herself by saying “Teresa is a saint. I’m known as Tracy.” That’s 1963 for the novel and 1969 for the movie where Bond finally weds – smack in the middle of Theresa’s most popular era. The names are linked only by popular usage; Tracy claims separate origins.
Tessa: Tessalyn, Tessianne
Tess elaborations appear throughout the twentieth century.
Mary Pickford played Tessibel in 1914’s Tess of the Storm Country, based on a 1909 novel.
Into the 1930s, Tessie ranked in the US Top 1000 as an independent given name. Credit might go to a song from a 1902 Broadway musical – though today’s parents likely think of the Dropkick Murphy’s version. Both were anthems used by the Boston Red Sox.
I’ve found Tessalyn, Tessianne, and similar constructions, too.
The Italian Contessa might be another option, and you could get to the Tess- names from Esther or Estelle, too.
Tessa: Sally and Molly’s Sister
Plenty of popular names have shed their roots. Sally and Sadie started out as nicknames for Sarah, and Molly came from Mary. Over the years, we forgot many connections, though some – like Katherine called Kate – persist.
In plenty of cases, the diminutive form ranks far higher than the original. Hattie outranks Harriet; parents prefer Liam to William.
And yet, this name feels slightly different. Tessa seems – at least in some cases – to have evolved in an attempt to lengthen Tess and make it feel more like a formal name.
Tessa: By the Numbers
Speaking of numbers, some prefer to connect this name to the number four.
That’s because in Latin tessera refers to a cube or square tablet, ultimately taken from a word meaning four. In geometry, a tesseract is a four-dimensional cube. (Though in A Wrinkle in Time, Meg and her brother travel through a tesseract – the wrinkle in time – to the fifth dimension.)
It makes for an intriguing connection, especially if you happen to be naming a fourth child.
Over the past two decades, fictional characters by the name have appeared everywhere. Cassandra Clare gave us one in Mortal Instruments. Speaking of YA, there’s another in Divergent. That’s more than enough to introduce this name to a whole new generation.
Add in characters from the X-Men, an American Girl character, and plenty of others, and it comes as no surprise that a new generation of parents finds this name perfectly wearable.
In fact, I think Tessa belongs with the Sweet Spot names: familiar, not invented, neither trendy nor traditional.
It makes a great choice for a daughter, a substitute for Emma and an update to Theresa.
Do you think Tessa stands on its own, or would you use it as a nickname?