The baby name Zella travels the globe, but ends up feeling like Top 100 favorites in the US … with a twist.
Thanks to Lys for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
FROM EVERYWHERE AND NOWHERE
You might’ve spotted the baby name Zella on a naming forum. It’s easy to imagine someone inventing it.
Except possible origins and meanings for this brief, simple name abound.
It could be short for Marcella, Isabella, Gisela, or many other names with an ‘s’ or ‘z’ and -ella at the end. Even names like Ursula and Cecilia don’t quite offer the spelling, but do suggest the Zella sound.
It occurs as the name of an oasis in Libya. In Germany, there’s Zella-Mehlis, along with Altzella and Neuzelle. Zelle translates to cell, and seems to indicate a former site of a monastery – or, at least that’s the case for Altzella.
There’s a Zella, Texas, too. But the Texas city was named for Zella Bland, daughter of one of the founders. It was growing in the 1910s, enough to boast a post office, school, and hotel. But it’s now considered a ghost town.
Several sites list Zella as a Bangi name with an amazing meaning: one who knows the way.
Except Bangi is an almost extinct language, dominant in the Congo region until the arrival of Europeans, but then fading from the nineteenth century onwards. Lingala is the version of the language spoken in the region today. Lingala names lists are in short supply, and none of them include the name Zella.
Still, it’s a big continent and a complex web of languages, and some Lingala first names – Lola, Zuna – sound like they could fit neatly with the first name Zella.
It’s tempting to connect the name to zealous, via the Latin zelus. The meaning appeals, but this might be folk etymology rather than an origin for the name.
That said, the name is sometimes spelled Zela, which looks a little closer to zealous.
Others connect the baby name Zella to Yiddish names, like Zelig and Zelda. This suggests another lovely meaning: happy.
ZELLA and ZELLO
Some Italian nicknames and surnames end with -zello and -zella.
That leads to a number of people answering to the surname Zella or Zello.
There’s a bakery called Zella’s in New York, and a pizza place named Zella’s in Baltimore, both inspired by a the last name Zella – or something like it.
One more nickname-inspired possibility.
Zala is a favorite in Slovenia, where it is sometimes short for longer names, like Rosalia. It’s easy to imagine Zala and Zella sharing the same space.
And the there’s the Old Testament ZIllah. The name means “shadow” in Hebrew.
That’s almost certainly why Zoe Marriott chose it for her 2007 re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans.” The Swan Kingdom introduces a heroine named Alexandra, and an evil enchantress called Zella. When the two meet, Alexandra remarks that Zella is an old word for shadow.
BY THE NUMBERS
That’s a lot of potential Zella name meanings, many of them appealing.
And at least some of them must’ve appealed to parents. From 1880 through 1950, the baby name Zella ranked in the US Top 1000 every single year. At the name’s peak, in 1917, 298 girls were named Zella.
By the late 1980s, the name approached obscurity. But as all of the -ella names revived, so did the baby name Zella. As of 2021, 183 girls received the name. That’s beyond the current Top 1000, but far from extinction.
NINETEENTH CENTURY TO NOW
Some of this simply comes down to sound. In the nineteenth century, ends-with-ella was a big category. Think Ella, Stella, Della, Estella (as in Great Expectations), Bella, Luella, Rosella, Nella, and plenty of others. Zella fit.
A handful of famous bearers of the name include pioneering nineteenth century librarian Zella Allen Dixson, who established early university and public libraries alike. There’s early twentieth century vaudeville star, Zella Russell – born Rosella. Washington State University alumni might know that student Zella Melcher penned the school’s fight song back in 1919. And on 1960s’ variety show Hee Haw, Zella Lehr was known for riding a unicycle, before graduating to a career in country music.
Here’s a fun find: once upon a time, the half-way mark between Los Angeles and Chicago on Route 66 was marked by a cafe called Zella’s, operated by a woman named Zella Prin. It’s still there, now known as the Midpoint Cafe. It’s the model for Flo’s V-8 Cafe in Disney-Pixar favorite Cars.
MORE FAMOUS ZELLAS
Zella Day is a singer-songwriter, known for performances with Lana Del Rey.
Gospel singer Zella Jackson Price is another American singer by the name.
ELLA, STELLA, BELLA …
All of this makes Zella a rarity, but one with a vintage vibe. There are just enough nineteenth century women with the name to make it feel every bit antique as it does modern.
Still, it brings to mind names like Xela and Zellah, ones that do seem more like modern inventions.
Name your daughter Zella and you risk repeating, “No, not Stella. Zella-with-a-Z.” But this is the kind of name that’s just one high-profile use away from catching on. In fact, the name’s popularity continue to grow.
For parents wild about the -ella names, but eager for something just slightly different, the baby name Zella is one to consider. It’s familiar and mysterious, sophisticated and approachable – a study in contrasts, with a meaning and origin story to please everyone.
What do you think of the baby name Zella?
Originally published on October 30, 2014, this post was revised and re-published on October 28, 2020. Additional updates took place on September 20, 2022.
My name is zella. I was born in 1957. Went through elementary school being called God zella. I hated it. But as I grew I loved my name. It’s unique. I’ve known other zellas. It’s a fun name as it’s so different.
I agree with Laura’s comment from 2015 — Zella is a great nickname for Hazel.
My name is Zella I love it it’s funny when the occasional Godzella jokes come around
I only know one Zella in real life (she’s 13). I dig the name…much more appealing and fresh to me than any of the other Ella names.
Christie Bradley says
My great grandmother was named Zella and I always wondered what it meant. It sounds like I will never be sure! As a little girl I thought it was a very glamourous-sounding name and I still do. It would be perfect for an elegant 30s movie star in a long satin dress and pearls.
Zella is fabulous! DH won’t let me have Zelda because of the video game connection (you’d think he’d be keen as a games fan, but nope), but I reckon I could convince him on this. Beautiful name – really fresh and unusual but also feels familiar because of Ella and Stella.
Zella is also a nickname for Hazel. My little Hazel goes by Zella on a regular basis.
Strangely enough I have ancestors on both sides of the family with the name “Zella” both of them born in the 1800s.
Mom of a Zella born in 2004! We do sometimes have to correct the “not Stella, Zella” and not “ZelDA, Zella” but overall, we’ve gotten a ton of compliments from people!
My daughters name is Zella. Obviously we love the name:)
Step-kid has a friend named Zella, in her case, I think it’s short for Giselle (or maybe Gisela.) Cute name.
I love it!
The Mrs. says
I’m diggin’ this name and would love to meet a little Zella. Some good friends have a daughter named Ella, so this one wouldn’t work for our family… but I wish it did! Edgy and lovely all at the same time!
I know a baby named Zella! I never thought of it as a goth name, more of a new take on “Ella” names.
What a cool name! I would love to have Zella as a name! It doesn’t have a goth feeling to me but more spunky/smart.
Isn’t the “shadow” meaning related to the Biblical name Zillah? Zella seems a LOT more wearable than Godzilla jokes waiting to happen.
D’oh! That’s it, Josie, of course – thank you!!