Etymology & Historical Origin of the Baby Name Ellen

Ellen developed as an English form of Helen in the Middle Ages, before they adopted Helen (which wasn’t until the 17th century). Helen is the English form of the Greek Hēlēnē (‘Ελενη) which has debatable etymologies. The name most likely comes from “hēlios” which is the Greek word for ‘sun’ to indicate a sunbeam or ray of light specifically. From ancient Greek mythology, Helen is a name made famous by 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 often considered the most gorgeous woman who ever lived. 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 which is when the English adopted Ellen as their equivalent. 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. 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”). Indeed, though, Helen is most famous for having the face that launched a thousand ships, but she also had a name that practically launched a thousand variations: Ellen, Eleanor (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. In fact, Nelle is Ellen spelled backwards. Among medieval English speakers, Ellen was the most common – it wasn’t until after the Renaissance when Helen became more common in Great Britain. Today, Ellen is a high ranking name in Sweden, but also in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

All About the Baby Name – Ellen



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Ellen has enjoyed a very popular career as a female name in America. The name has been shared by two First Ladies (Chester Arthur’s wife and Woodrow Wilson’s wife). Since the U.S. government first began tracking naming trends in 1880, Ellen has been a commonly used girl’s name. Although she has generally resided at the higher end of the Top 100 list, the name has enjoyed a place there for almost 80 consecutive years. It wasn’t until 1962 that Ellen finally fell from the Top 100 list of most commonly used female names. From that point on, Ellen has been in relatively slow decline. Then in the late 1990s, she pretty much experienced a free-fall down the charts to very low levels of popularity today. Ellen is a lovely, simple and unpretentious name. So much so, she is often considered slightly boring by today’s standards and more preferred as a middle name. This minimalistic English classic remains a pretty name, and now that it’s so underused, it has become more original.

Quick Facts













Ray of light, sunbeam










Cultural References to the Baby Name – Ellen

Literary Characters


Ellen O’Hara is the mother of Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s classic 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind, made into the equally successful 1939 movie of the same name (in which the character is played by the serene Barbara O’Neill). Ellen is an aristocratic Southern girl of French descent who, thwarted in her desire to marry her true love, devotes herself to the earthy Gerald O’Hara and the running of the plantation called Tara. She is almost impossibly good and dutiful, and presents a difficult model for her daughter to live up to. At the same time, however, Ellen provides the steadfast moral support for the family that almost immediately falls apart after her death. Scarlett, by dint of her formidable tenacity, turns their fortunes around, albeit not quite in the fashion of which Ellen would have approved. Nonetheless, it would appear to be Ellen’s influence that allows Scarlett to keep going, no matter the cost.

Countess Ellen Olenska is the memorable character in Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1920 novel, The Age of Innocence who poses a threat to the marriage plans of two young members of upper class society in New York City of the 1870s. Ellen is the older, sophisticated and worldly cousin of May Welland, who is engaged to Newland Archer. Ellen has just returned from Europe alone, and plans to divorce her husband, a Polish count who has been cruel and unfaithful. Divorce in these circles at this time is unthinkable, and Ellen’s family enlists Mr. Archer, an attorney, to try and talk her out of it. In the process, he comes to appreciate her independence and to see how inequitable are the social restraints under which he has been raised. Fighting against the powerful attraction he has for Ellen, Archer convinces May to marry sooner than planned. Ellen, likewise in love and realizing its futility, nobly rises to the occasion. She agrees not to divorce her husband, she remains in America, and she distances herself from the young couple. Ultimately, upon learning of May’s pregnancy, she returns to Europe just as Archer is poised to leave May for her. Society’s strictures triumph, although, seeing Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1993 movie by Martin Scorsese makes us wonder where Daniel Day-Lewis found the fortitude.

Popular Songs


Ellen and Ben
a song by The Dismemberment Plan

Poor Ellen Smith
a song by Kingston Trio

a song by 10,000 Maniacs

Famous People


Ellen Arthur (U.S. First Lady)
Ellen Wilson (U.S. First Lady)
Ellen DeGeneres (comedienne/TV personality)
Ellen Barkin (actress)
Ellen Burstyn (actress)
Ellen Page (actress)
Ellen Pompeo (actress)
Ellen Tyne Daly (actress)
Ellen Naomi Cohen (aka "Mama" Cass Elliot/musician)
Ellen Cleghorne (SNL cast member)
Ellen G. White (author)
Ellen Foley (singer)
Ellen Hopkins (author)

Children of Famous People


We cannot find any children of famous people with the first name Ellen

Historic Figures


We cannot find any historically significant people with the first name Ellen