The enduring popularity of the name "Elizabeth"

BY Lizzie Enfield

7th Jun 2022 Life

The enduring popularity of the name "Elizabeth"

In the Queen's 70th year as Britain's monarch, Lizzie Enfield contemplates the history and popularity of her name, "Elizabeth"

When I was at primary school my class had 16 girls in it. Four of us were named Elizabeth. In the year of my birth, the name ranked 19 in the UK girls’ names charts, but in my little corner of Sussex it seemed more popular.

Our teacher put this down to the popularity of the Queen. But she decided four Elizabeths in one class was confusing. She directed three of us to adopt a diminutive.  

I was already sometimes Lizzie and another was Beth at home. One of the girls who, even at a tender age had an air of glamour about her, declared she would be known henceforth as “Lilla.”  

I envied her this choice and have often wondered how my life might have been different had I made myself stand out from the abundance of Elizabeths by adopting a more unusual alternative.

A quick history of Elizabeths

Elizabeth has been a perennially popular name for girls throughout the ages and across the globe.

The name is Hebrew in origin, which gives it a timeless quality and means “pledged to God.” One of the first appears in the bible: Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, was said to be old and barren but miraculously gave birth to John the Baptist.

In the UK, figures compiled by the Office for National Statistics show that Elizabeth is consistently in the top 50 girls names.

Throughout the 20th century it was in in the top 25, bar 1945 when it slipped to 26. Betty was in at number 11 though.

Variations on the name "Elizabeth"

Black and white photo of Elizabeth TaylorCopyright: Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 2012. Elizabeth Taylor famously hated shortening her name to "Liz"

That’s another good thing about the name. If you want to reinvent yourself there’s a myriad of variants without even having to make one up: Eliza, Elissa, Elsie, Elise, Elisa, Elisabet, Elspie, Lisabette, Lisabetta, Lisbet, Lisbeth, Alisa, Lisa, Lisel, Liselle, Lesetta, Lisette, Lizzie, Lizzy, Lib, Libby, Libbie, Liz, Lisa, Tetsy, Tetty, Tibbie, Beth, Bethia, Betsy, Betsey, Bettie, Bettina, Betty, Bet, Bess, Bessie, and Betsy.

I think that’s most of them, unless you want to start on national variations…

Elspeth is the Scottish form; Else a French version; Lusa—Finnish, Erzsebet—Hungarian. There’s potential for an entire class!

Having spent most of my life as a Lizzie I had another brush with reinvention when my most recent novels were sold to a new publisher. My editor and agent decided it would lend me more “gravitas” if I reverted to the full Elizabeth.

Although my children laughed at the notion and I sometimes forgot to answer to it, I rather liked going the whole Elizabeth hog.

It felt more grown up and graceful—think of Elizabeth Taylor, who apparently hated being called Liz because it sounded like "hiss"—and had good literary credentials: Elizabeth Barret Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Bishop.

Recently dropped among the Elizabeth diminutives is Lilibet, Queen Elizabeth's childhood nickname used by Prince Harry and wife Meghan for their daughter, Lilibet Diana. 

The name was apparently coined when the Queen was a toddler and could not pronounce her own name properly. It stuck and she was affectionately referred to as Lilibet by close relatives throughout her life.

It’s not yet made it into the official charts, but according to Baby Centre it’s probably behind the rising popularity of Lily, which in 2021 claimed the number one spot for girls’ names.

A name fit for a queen

Queen Elizabeth I in The Armada PortraitAmong other nicknames, Queen Elizabeth I was often affectionately referred to as Good Queen Bess

Elizabeth has always been popular in royal circles. Not only have two of England's most notable queens been called Elizabeth, so too was the Queen Mother, 18th-century Elizabeth of Russia, 16th-century Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia and 13th-century Elizabeth of Hungary.

Because my primary school teacher was so insistent that the abundance of Elizabeths in her class must all be named after the Queen, for a while I believed this to be the case.

But my parents told me I was, in fact, named after a horse! My older sister had riding lessons around the time of my birth and asked if the baby could be named after her favorite mount.  

Years later my own daughter misheard and thought I had been named after a whore—as if my parents were far more libertarian than they were. But the horse was apparently named after the Queen, who, like my sister, loved riding.

Apart from my literary adoption of the full Elizabeth, I have gone through life referred to mostly as Lizzie. But there are still occasions when only Elizabeth will do: official forms and abroad.

In places like Spain where zs are pronounced “th” it becomes a bit of a tongue twister and it’s easier to say “Elizabeth”. In India, Elizabeth is not a common name but mention it and people respond with a smiley, “like the Queen?”

As my namesake celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, I suspect I will not be the only Elizabeth who feels a certain nomenclatorial affinity with Her Majesty, but am one of the much abundance of Elizabeths named, directly or indirectly after her.

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