Saturday, December 05, 2009

Elizabeth Through the Ages

*I wrote this post a few months ago for something else, that thing has not materialised so I am publishing it here*

Elizabeth Through The Ages

‘The name boasts more diminutives than it has letters’ – Sophy Moody, 1863

From Ellie to Lizzie, Beth to Lisa, and beyond, one of the name Elizabeth’s strengths is its wide variety of nicknames. Whilst Elizabeth has remained a popular choice since the 15th century, its nicknames and diminutives have gone in and out of vogue. This article principally focuses on such trends in the USA, though there is some reference to UK and other worldwide trends as well.

Popular 19th Century nicknames

Eliza, the earliest nickname for which I have data, was a popular nickname in the UK in the 1840s, when it was in the top 10. Indeed, this popularity was likely reflected in the USA, as its highest position was during the 1880s, when SSA records began.

The other names popular in the late 19th century include Bess and Bessie, which were originally used as nicknames in the 16th century – for example, as an epithet for Queen Elizabeth I of England as ‘Good Queen Bess’, as well as other notable figures such as Bess of Hardwick and Bess Throckmorton, wife of Walter Raleigh. Though Bessie may now elicit response of ‘suitable for a cow rather than a person’, in 1889, the name ranked 9th in the USA, being given to 1.2% of girls born that year and was more popular than Alice, Grace or Sarah.

Another trend for late 19th century nicknames was an ending of ‘-ie’ – Bettie, Elsie, Libbie, Lissie and Lizzie all had their highest popularity in the late 19th century. This was not a trend confined to nicknames of Elizabeth. The US top 50 for 1890 includes Minnie, Annie, Nellie, Carrie, Lillie, Hattie, Jennie, Mattie and Jessie. Lillie and Jennie in particular rank above their more common forms today of Lily and Jenny.

Ella and Elsa were also popular in the late 19th century. Ella was revived in the 19th century by the pre-Raphaelite writers, and ranked #13 in 1880. Elsa is a German diminutive of Elizabeth, and like Elsie, was popular in the 1890s.

The First Half of the 20th Century, and the ‘Bet-’ names

During the first half of the 20th century, ‘Be’ names were really at the fore of the popular Elizabeth nicknames. Betty took over from Bessie as the most popular Elizabeth nickname in the 1910s, while Bette, Bettye and Bettie all experienced continued popularity. From 1928 to 34, Betty was the 2nd most popular girl’s name in USA, just after Mary and surpassing Elizabeth. Betsy and Beth had later surges of popularity, being most popular in the 1960s and 70s.

Betty was not quite as popular in the UK – in 1944, it was only #68, compared with #10 in the US. Influences on Betty’s popularity from the period include the ‘Betty Crocker’ food company, formed in 1921, and the cartoon character Betty Boop, who first appeared in 1930.

Latter half of the 20th century, and the ‘Li-‘ names

Lisa is the name or nickname of Elizabeth that really dominates the latter half of the 20th century. Lisa was #1 in the USA from 1962 to 69, taking the top spot from Mary – a spot that Mary has never regained. As is usual with a popular trend, various other ‘Li-‘ names grew in popularity during the period that Lisa was #1, including Liz, Liza and Lisette. Interestingly, Lissie did not re-enter the top 1000 during this period.

Lisa arrived in the UK a little later than the US, charting at #54 in 1964, but #5 in 1974.

21st century – return of the ‘El-‘ names

While Bessie, Betty and Betsy remain out of style at the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a recent resurgence in the popularity of other late 19th century nicknames such as Ella, Eliza, Elsa and Libby. Elise, which has remained steadily popular throughout the 20th century, is beginning to climb the charts, while a new nickname in the form of Elle has emerged.

In the UK, Ella and Ellie are becoming less popular after a surge in popularity in the early 00s that brought Ellie to the #2 spot. Ella is also a nickname that crosses language borders – appearing in the top 100s of Sweden, Belgium and Norway. It is also very popular at the moment in Australia and New Zealand. Back in the UK, Libby has also climbed into the charts, and was #62 in 2008 in England and Wales.

Isabel and especially Isabella are very popular at the moment in the USA, though I did not include them in this study as they are more derivatives than nicknames. Lily – also a nickname for Elizabeth, is also popular though it is difficult to tell whether this is due to the flower, or due to parents wanting another nickname for Elizabeth (indeed, many are unaware of the link at all!)

What’s next?

After the ‘El’ names have run their course, one can ask which nicknames will return or arrive. It seems likely that the ‘Be’ names will begin to rise again – Betsy and Betty in particular seem to have attracted a vintage chic. This may lead to modern respellings of the names such as Betzi and Bettee. Parents may seek out new nicknames for Elizabeth – Lisa was once unknown, and there are nicknames such as the Cornish Eppow out there waiting to be discovered. Parents may look to the sound of the name, as with Elle, and embrace Isa, Zab or Eth as nicknames.