About Names: Dr. Evans on the name “Tristan”

Tristan et Iseult, by Louis Bouquet (1921, Photo: Public Domain)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his December 31st column, he discusses the name “Tristan”.

Tristan’s off to war, but “Creatures” goes on.

In the Dec. 24 Christmas episode of “All Creatures Great and Small” on PBS, young veterinarian Tristan joined Britain’s World War II military. On Jan. 7 the new season starts, with brother Siegfried and colleague James overworked due to Tristan’s absence.

Tristan’s a name from medieval legend. Since the 12th century the story of how Tristan, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, tragically falls in love with Iseult (or Isolde), Mark’s bride, has been retold by multiple authors.

Experts think Tristan was originally Drustan, from Celtic “tumult,” blended with French “triste” meaning “sad.”

Since the 13th century Tristram’s been an alternate form. After 1770 Tristram was more common, partly because of “Tristram Shandy” (1767), a comic novel by Laurence Sterne. Tristram’s father claims names exert enormous influence over one’s fate, and the worst possible name is Tristram. He wanted his son named Trismegistus, “three times great,” after the mystical founder of alchemy, but his mother mistakenly had him baptized Tristram.

The 1850 United States census found 279 Tristrams and 36 Tristans. Tristram was especially common in Massachusetts, probably because Tristram Coffin (1609-1681) was a founding settler on Nantucket. Tristram’s census peak was in 1850 — in 1950, there were 55 Tristrams and 124 Tristans.

In 1950 Tristan was known to opera fans through Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (1865), where the lovers die like Romeo and Juliet, which didn’t happen in many medieval versions.

“All Creatures Great and Small” is based on Yorkshire vet James Herriot’s memoirs. When he began publishing these in 1970, he chose Siegfried as pseudonym for colleague Donald Sinclair from the hero of other Wagner operas, and decided to use “Tristan” for Donald’s brother Brian since he was “romantic,” like Wagner’s Tristan.