Thanks to Lys for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
FROM EVERYWHERE AND NOWHERE
You might’ve heard the baby name Zella on a naming forum. It’s easy to imagine someone inventing it circa 2020.
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 have the Zella sound.
It occurs as a place name in Libya; in Germany, there’s Zella-Mehlis, along with Altzella and Neuzella.
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.
Nameberry lists Zella as a Bobangi name with an amazing meaning: one who knows the way. Maybe so. Except it’s 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. And while Lingala names lists are in short supply, none of them list the baby name Zella. Still, it’s a big continent and a complex web of languages.
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.
Some connect the baby name Zella to Yiddish names, like Zelig and Zelda. This suggests another lovely meaning: happy.
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 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 2019, 162 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.
ELLA, STELLA, BELLA …
All of this makes Zella a rarity, but one with a vintage vibe.
Nordstrom has used it for a line of activewear, possibly playing on the similarity to the word “excel.”
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.
If you’re wild about the -ella names, but eager for something just slightly different, the baby name Zella is one to consider.
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.