American Names · Classic, Old, and Traditional Names

The Mystery of Arabella

Arabella is a name that’s very old.  Somehow, though, she managed to fly under the radar for at least a century.  She was popular enough to be one of the top 1000 American girls’ names for several years in the 1880s, but disappeared from that major ranking until 2005.  Indeed, between the 1880s and 1990s there were many years when only 10 or fewer babies were named Arabella.  In some years, there were under 5 registered uses, meaning the name didn’t appear in the SSA data at all.  

According to Behind the Name, Arabella was a Medieval Scottish appellation.  She may be a variation on Annabel or (possibly) the Latin word orabilis, which roughly translates as “prayable.”  I don’t doubt her geographical origins; Arabella or Arbella Stuart was at one point in line for the English throne, which was instead inherited by her cousin, whom we know as King James I.

Arbella, in case you’re wondering, is an archaic spelling.  Arabella seems to be the spelling I most encounter among women born after 1700, and especially the very large number of them born in the past 10 years alone.  Usually, though, for occurrences between 1550 and 1650, I’m more likely to see Arbella, with a note explaining that Arabella as a variant.  Arbella Stuart is rarely rendered as Arabella Stuart, but the ship Arbella is often rendered as Arabella (note: the ship was named after a person, Arbella/Arabella Johnson).  Then there’s Arabella Churchill, a 17th-century king’s mistress, who as far as I can tell is almost never referred to by ArbellaEither way, neither the noblewoman, the ship, nor Arabella Churchill explain any modern popularity.  And this is my quandary.

I would love to know why Arabella is becoming so popular.  This name is incredibly trendy and I would not be surprised if she soon becomes a top 100 appellation.  The issue is that I don’t know what resurrected the name in the first place.  There *is* a Harry Potter character with the name (Arabella Figg), but she’s a fairly minor character.  Perhaps evidence that this character isn’t the reason is that Arabella debuted in the British and Welsh top 500 in the late 1990s, years before the American reintroduction.  Now, Mrs. Figg was mentioned in Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, which was in fact published in the late 1990s, but I don’t recall her first name appearing until Order of the Phoenix some years later.  I know there are other Arabellas in literature, but as far as I’m aware none are significant enough to cause a popularity burst.  Sometimes soap operas will cause a naming boom, but I don’t think that was the case here.

I suspect that the recent popularity of Isabella boosts Arabella somewhat, and it might be that Arabella‘s meteoric rise is part of a growing trend of frilly feminine names.  There’s also been considerable pressure in the naming world to use older appellations.  The 20th century was the era of modern names, and the 21st century is the renaissance of the old.


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