A reader named Paula sent me an interesting question not too long ago:
My sister-in-law found ‘Capitola’ as a first name in her family’s history. We know it comes from E.D.E.N. Southworth’s “The Hidden Hand” but we cannot discover its meaning or derivation. Can you help us?
I tried, but I wasn’t able to find out exactly what inspired Southworth to choose the name “Capitola” for her tomboyish character Capitola Le Noir (a.k.a. Cap Black).
She did have a lot of fun with the gender-neutral nickname “Cap,” though. Different parts of the story have titles like “Cap in Captivity,” “Capitola Caps the Climax,” “Capitola a Capitalist,” and “Capitola the Madcap.” I think it’s entirely possible that Southworth chose the nickname first, then lengthened it to something more fanciful/formal.
Regardless of how/why she chose the name, it does bear a strong resemblance to the word “capitol,” which comes from the Latin word capitolium, which referred to the Temple of Jupiter in ancient Rome.
The Hidden Hand was first published in 1859 in the newspapers. It was serialized twice more before being published as a book in 1888. The book ended up selling millions of copies. It went on to be adapted for the stage dozens of times.
Capitola encounters many adventures and withstands much danger, starring in sensational plots that some critics worried were too stimulating for delicate female readers. The mass public loved Capitola, however, and one California town still bears her name.
The book and its sequel, Capitola’s Peril, inspired expectant parents across the U.S. to name their baby girls Capitola. From the mid-1800s until the mid-1900s, hundreds of babies got the name. A handful even got the first-middle combination “Capitola Lenoir.”
P.S. Wondering what “E.D.E.N.” stands for? The author’s full name was Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth.
[Latest update: July 2021]