Etymology & Historical Origin of the Baby Name Elaine
Elaine began as an Old French variant of Helen (now the French use Hélène) which was eventually adopted by the English. The Greek Hēlēnē (‘Ελενη) has debatable etymologies. The name either comes from the Greek “hēlios” which is the word for “sun” to indicate a sunbeam or ray of light specifically. In a similar vein the Greek word “‘ελενη” means “fire torch” referring to the rare appearance of St. Elmo’s Fire (off the mast of a ship). Lastly, the name could simply come from the Greek word for “Greek” (Hellēn, as in Hellenistic culture) but this is not widely held. The first suggested meaning is probably the most accurate especially when you consider the Greek mythological beauty Helen. Helen is a name made most famous by Homer’s “Iliad” (written around the 8th century B.C.); she was the beautiful Spartan queen whose abduction by Paris set in motion the mythological Trojan War. She is known as the woman whose face “launched a thousand ships” and therefore came to symbolize womanly perfection in Western Culture. Incidentally, it wasn’t this classical Greek beauty but rather a 3rd/4th century saint (Helena of Constantinople) who served to popularize the name among early Christians in medieval times. Saint Helena was the beloved mother of Roman Emperor Constantine I (272-337) who had the distinction of being the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity (effectively switching the Roman Empire from a pagan one to a Christian one). According to popular legend, Helena is also credited with finding the “True Cross” (relics of the cross on which Christ was crucified) buried at a dig site she orchestrated in Jerusalem (she is thus the patron saint of “new discoveries”). Today, however, most people prefer Helen’s association with the beautiful Greek Queen whose face launched a thousand ships, but she also had the name that practically launched a thousand variations: Helen, Ellen, Eleanor, Elaine (English), Helena (Portuguese), Elena (Italian), Lena, Ella, Elin (Dutch, Scandinavian), Hélène (French), Elena, Iliana (Spanish), Aileen/Eileen (Scottish); Elaine (Welsh); Aliénor (Provençal) – not to mention a slew of diminutives: Elle, Ella, Ellie, Lena, Nell, Nella, Nellie. Among medieval English speakers, Ellen was most common. Usage of Elaine, specifically, was in part influenced by Celtic/Welsh Mythology as a romantic figure, Elaine of Astolat, in the well-known and much beloved legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable (see literary references below). It wasn’t until after Alfred, Lord Tennyson published “The Lady of Shalott” and “Idylls of the King” in the mid 19th century that English speakers adopted the name Elaine more readily. Although the French heavily influenced names throughout the British Isles after the Norman Conquest, there is some belief that Elaine’s origins may be a mutated for of a Celtic word for “fawn”.