Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his December 7th column, he looks at the history of the name Ellen.
Ellen is the English form of Helen, derived from a Greek word for what’s today called “St. Elmo’s Fire,” light appearing around ship’s masts during thunderstorms, caused by electrical discharge. St. Helen was the mother of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to accept Christianity. Ninth-century English priest Cynewulf wrote about Helen’s travels to Palestine to find the “true cross” in “Elene,” one of the earliest surviving Old English poems.
In the 18th century, educated parents reintroduced Helen. Though Helen quickly took over in Scotland, in England and America, Ellen had more staying power. The 1850 United States census found 121,770 Ellens and 19,849 Helens. Around 1875, Helen started its American boom. Between 1900 and 1919, it ranked second for newborn American girls.
Though Ellen fell to 290th in 1985, it inched up the next decade as similar sounding Ella rose. After 1995, Ellen plummeted. This may be partly due to DeGeneres becoming a “one-name celebrity” through sitcom “Ellen” (1994-98) and her talk show. Of course, the Ellens born around the name’s 1946 peak are now in their 70s, giving it a “grandma” vibe to modern young parents.