The inspiration was either (or both?) of two 1916 films featuring characters named Ysobel:
The Yaqui, released in March of 1916. Ysobel was played by actress Yona Landowska.
Lieutenant Danny, U.S.A., released in August of 1916. Ysobel was played by actress Enid Markey.
(My guess is that the first film had more influence, both because it was released earlier and because another character name, Modesta, also saw higher usage in 1916.)
The rare spelling “Ysobel” is likely based on the Old Spanish version of the name, Ysabel.
In fact, did you know that the historic Spanish queen we call “Isabella” in English was actually known as “Ysabel” during her lifetime? (And her husband Ferdinand was actually “Fernando.”) Their initials, “F” and “Y,” were featured on the banner that Christopher Columbus created for his 1492 expedition to the New World.
The Movie Picture World, Mar. 18, 1916: 1847.
Lossing, Benson J. The Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution. Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851.
Tara, Maeve, and many of the other Irish names used in the U.S. today weren’t popularized by Irish immigrants. Instead, they gained traction after being introduced to the public via movies, television, and other types of pop culture.
Siobhan is no different. But it’s also a special case, because Americans heard about the name before they saw it written down. The result? The Irish spelling made a splash on the U.S. baby name charts…but only after a phonetic respelling made a similar splash. In fact, the misspelled version and the correctly spelled version were consecutive top girl name debuts in the mid-1950s.
So who’s the person behind the launch of Siobhan? Irish actress Siobhán McKenna (1923-1986).
In 1955, McKenna was nominated for a Tony for her role as Miss Madrigal in the play The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold (who had written National Velvet two decades earlier). The same year, the name Shevawn debuted in the U.S. data:
The next year, Siobhán McKenna impressed audiences with her portrayal of Joan of Arc in the George Bernard Shaw play Saint Joan. Her popularity in this role earned her the cover of LIFE magazine in September. Next to her image was her name, Siobhan, spelled correctly (but missing the fada). Right on cue, the name Siobhan debuted in the data:
1958: 54 baby girls named Siobhan
1957: 67 baby girls named Siobhan
1956: 58 baby girls named Siobhan [debut]
Once U.S. parents learned how to spell “Siobhan,” the alternative spellings became less common, though they remained in use.
Siobhan was boosted into the top 1,000 in 1979 and remained popular during the 1980s thanks to the soap opera Ryan’s Hope, which introduced a character named Siobhan in 1978.
It’s rather fitting that Siobhán McKenna was best known for playing Saint Joan, as both “Siobhán” and “Joan” were derived from the name Jeanne, which is French feminine form of John (meaning “Yahweh is gracious”).
How do you feel about the name Siobhan? If you were going to use it, how would you spell it?
I recently read something that mentioned the English village of Giggleswick. That name was so fun I had to look it up: it’s a two-part place name made up of the Old English personal name Gikel or Gichel plus the Old English word wic meaning “dairy farm” or “dwelling.”
And inside the village is another interesting name: Alkelda. The church of St. Alkelda in Giggleswick is one of two churches in the North Yorkshire region named after the legendary local saint who may have been an Anglo-Saxon princess…or may have been entirely made up. Doubters note that the name “Alkelda” is suspiciously similar to haeligkeld, an Anglo-Saxon place name meaning “holy spring” or “holy well.”
So have any real-life babies been named after St. Alkelda? Yes, I found records for more than a dozen Alkeldas — all were born in England, and most were born in Yorkshire specifically.
A couple of days ago, in my post about Rhiannon, I mentioned the Mabinogion.
The first person to translate this collection of medieval tales into English was Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1885). She wasn’t a native Welsh speaker, but learned the language after marrying Welsh businessman John Josiah Guest at the age of 21 and moving to Wales.
That marriage produced 10 children. Here are the names:
Charlotte Maria (b. 1834)
Ivor Bertie (b. 1835)
Katherine Gwladys (b. 1837)
Thomas Merthyr (b. 1838)
Montague John (b. 1839)
Augustus Frederick (b. 1840)
Arthur Edward (b. 1841)
Mary Enid Evelyn (b. 1843)
Constance Rhiannon (b. 1844)
Blanche Vere (b. 1847)
Many of the above, including Bertie, Montagu (without the e) and Vere, are family names on Charlotte’s side. Charlotte’s father Albemarle got another interesting family name.
Here are definitions for the four Welsh names:
Gwladys – A form of the old Welsh name Gwladus. It might be based on the Welsh word gwlad, meaning “country.”
Merthyr – From the Welsh word merthyr, which means “martyr.” Records show that Thomas was born in the town of Merthyr Tydfil.
Enid – Found in the Welsh legend of Geraint and Enid. It might be based on the Welsh word enaid, meaning “soul.”
Rhiannon – Found in the Mabinogion. It might mean “divine goddess” or “maid of Annwfn.”
If you could add an 11th name (first + middle) to this set, what combination would you choose and why? Gender is up to you.
In the Danish fairy tale “Tommelise” (1835) by Hans Christian Andersen, Tommelise is a tiny girl who has adventures with a toad, a butterfly, some stag beetles, a field mouse, a mole, a swallow, and finally a tiny prince.
In the earliest English translations of “Tommelise” the main character is renamed Little Ellie, Little Totty, and Little Maja. It wasn’t until 1864 that translator Henry W. Dulcken came up with the name Thumbelina.
(Both names, Tommelise and Thumbelina, were probably influenced by the name of folklore character Tom Thumb.)
Now for the important question: Have any babies ever been named Thumbelina?
Yes, at least a few dozen.
One example is Fabiola Thumbelina Blonigen, born in Minnesota in 1935. She was mentioned in the book Big Pants, Burpy and Bumface…and Other Totally True Names! by Russell Ash. (Her 5 siblings also had interesting names: Elaine Enid, Fabian Adrian, Quentin Phillip, Verdi Georgio and Twyla Delilah.)
Most of the Thumbelinas I’ve found were born in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The parents of these babies were likely inspired by the song “Thumbelina” sung by Danny Kaye in the movie musical Hans Christian Andersen (1952).
Believe it or not, “Thumbelina” was one of the nominees for Best Original Song at the 25th Academy Awards.
The most interesting Thumbelina name-combo I’ve spotted so far? “Tiny Thumbelina.” It was given to a North Carolina baby born in 1969.
So what do you think of Thumbelina as a baby name?
And, bonus question: At the end of the original fairy tale, the prince tells Tommelise (pronounced tom-meh-lee-seh) that he doesn’t like her name. “It’s an ugly name, and you are so beautiful.” So he gives her a new one: Maja (pronounced mie-ah). Which name do you prefer, Tommelise or Maja?