Etymology & Historical Origin of the Baby Name Helen

Helen is the English form of the Greek Hēlēnē (‘Ελενη) which 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’ or the appearance of St. Elmo’s Fire (off the mast of a ship). Secondly, Helen is considered as a possible derivation the Greek “σελήνη” (Selene) which means ‘moon’. 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. 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 (mythologically speaking, of course). 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. 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”). Finally, there is the oft-quoted and ever-inspirational Helen Keller (1880-1968) who single-handedly altered the way people viewed the blind and deaf. Indeed, though, Helen is most famous for having the face that launched a thousand ships, but she also had the 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. Among medieval English speakers, Ellen was more common. It wasn’t until after the Renaissance when Helen became more common in Great Britain.

All About the Baby Name – Helen

Personality

OF THE GIRL NAME HELEN

The number Eight personality has everything to do with power, wealth and abundance. Somehow, this personality has been blessed on the material plane, but their authoritative and problem-solving traits provide evidence that their good fortunes are not just the luck of the lottery. They are well earned. This is the personality of CEOs and high-ranking military personnel. Eights are intensely active, hard-driving individuals. Success is only meaningful to them after a job well-done.  They are remarkable in their ability to see the larger picture right down to the smallest details, and organize a strategy around success. They then have the ability to direct a group around them toward any goal, and realize individual potential to get the most out of their team.

Popularity

OF THE GIRL NAME HELEN

Let’s face facts. Helen is an old-fashioned name. In the first two decades of the 20th century, this Greek beauty was the 2nd most popular girl’s name in America (challenged only by Mary). Her silver status was finally usurped by Dorothy in 1920. Still, Helen remained on the Top 10 list of most commonly used female names up until 1936. She was a Top 50 choice until 1950 and then pretty much fell off the Top 100 in 1960. From that point on, her slow and steady decline on the charts continued. Now that we’ve entered the 21st century, Helen is still falling in usage but she may be hitting a plateau. There is a revival interest in old-fashioned names today, but Helen isn’t quite making the cut. We’re not sure why. It definitely doesn’t seem as out-dated as some other names that have her beaten on the charts (Vivian, Hazel, Esther, Rose, Ruth). Helen is a very womanly name with classic appeal. It is no longer as ϋber-popular as it once was and therefore not so common among today’s children. The name’s connection to classical Greek mythology, her appearance in literature, and her near synonymous link to beauty makes her an excellent choice for any lucky little baby girl.

Quick Facts

ON HELEN

GENDER:

Girl

ORIGIN:

English

NUMBER OF SYLLABLES:

2

RANKING POPULARITY:

409

PRONUNCIATION:

HEL-ən

SIMPLE MEANING:

Ray of light, Fire torch

Characteristics

OF HELEN

Authoritative

Powerful

Tough

Tenacious

Wealthy

Problem-solver

Achiever

Cultural References to the Baby Name – Helen

Literary Characters

OF THE BABY NAME HELEN

Helen (or Helena) is the heroine of Shakespeare’s play, “All’s Well That Ends Well”, believed to have been written around 1605. Helen is an orphaned gentlewoman under the care of the Countess of Rousillon, who is in love with the Countess’ son, Bertram. Alas, Bertram does not return the favor, and declines her attentions. When Helen is able to cure the king’s mysterious illness, he rewards her by giving her any man in the kingdom for her husband. Guess who? Bertram is really out of sorts now, and runs off to war after the wedding. He sends Helen a letter saying that he will never be her true husband unless she can (1) obtain his family ring from his finger and (2) bear his child. These conditions seem impossible, but, this is Shakespeare – never worry. Helen rises to the occasion on both counts by some nice bits of trickery, and wins her reluctant man back. We of modern days might not wish to have so grudging a spouse, and won by such subversive means, but this does not seem to have bothered Helen at all. Give the girl kudos for perseverance! (One little side note – Shakespearean scholars don’t know exactly how to classify this play – tragedy? comedy? – and have hence put it in the category of “problem play”, which speaks volumes.)

The New York Times bestseller “Helen of Troy” by Margaret George (author of Mary, Called Magdalene). With her amazing ability to summon the voices of historical characters, Margaret George in Helen of Troy tells the story of the woman whose face famously “launched a thousand ships”. Laden with doom, yet surprising in its moments of innocence and beauty, this is a beautifully told story of a legendary woman and her times. An exquisite page-turner with a cast of irresistible characters: Odysseus, Hector, Achilles, Priam, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, as well as Helen and Paris themselves, plus a wealth of material that reproduces the Age of Bronze in all its glory. Helen of Troy brings to life a war that we have all learned about but never before experienced.

Helen Burns is the gentle young friend of Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. While Jane herself strives to be good in the face of overwhelming odds, young Helen seems to be to suffering born, to accept her fate and eagerly to await her rewards in another life. Strangely enough, she is not treacly at all, even to our modern senses – she is just pure goodness and innocence, and is much beloved by Jane. Helen, while certainly acknowledging the deplorable conditions at the Lowood School, nonetheless believes that divine reason lies behind all actions, and that we shall be compensated or punished in the after-life. Naturally, she dies a death of consumption at a young age, and, like Jane, we hope with all our hearts that she is right about her beliefs. Helen was most beautifully rendered by a very young Elizabeth Taylor in the 1943 film version.

Helen is the famed most beautiful woman of all in mythology, as described by Homer in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, dated around the 8th century B.C., and by Euripides in his play, Helen, first performed around 412 B.C. Helen is thought to have been the result of the union between the god Zeus and the mortal Leda, who transformed herself into a swan. While still a young girl, Helen is kidnapped by Theseus, but later is rescued by her brothers. After entertaining scores of suitors, Helen becomes the wife of Menelaus (king) of Sparta, but of course her story doesn’t end there. The Trojan, Paris, when called upon to decide who amongst the goddesses is the most beautiful, chooses Aphrodite, due to her bribe of rewarding him with Helen. Helen and Paris fall in love while Menelaus is conveniently away for a family funeral, and they elope to Troy (never mind that the bride-to-be is already married). Helen is adored in Troy, and the Trojans stave off the avenging Greeks for the duration of a ten year war. The Greeks prevail, of course, by coming up with that marvelous Trojan horse, win the day, and bring Helen back with them to Greece. Legend has it that Helen and Menelaus live happily into old age together, against all odds. At least that is the story most often told, and it doesn’t bode too well for the character of Helen. She seems to be a plaything of gods and men, going where the winds blow strongest, and causing havoc - all for the moniker of “… the face that launched a thousand ships”, as well as an ongoing immortal reputation. Would you go there?

Helen is the younger sister in E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel of Edwardian society mores, “Howards End”. Helen is a beautiful, wealthy and impulsive young woman with plenty of time on her hands to enjoy upper class life and to interfere in other peoples’ lives. As a privileged member of society, Helen thinks nothing of trying to “help” those less fortunate. This she does with catastrophic results, albeit unintentionally. When she meddles in the unfortunate Leonard Bast’s life, she causes him to lose his livelihood, to endure public humiliation along with his wife, to enter into an adulterous relationship with herself, and ultimately, to die well before his time. And yet…believe it or not, we see her as well-meaning and kind, if perhaps just a little bit too self-absorbed. At Howards End’s end. Helen has given birth to Leonard’s child and has been considerably sobered by her experiences. She looks forward to a newly charged life in a newly positioned England, and we wish her well. (In the 1992 film version, Helena Bonham-Carter plays her to perfection.)

Edgar Allen Poe wrote two different poems titled “To Helen”; the first was in 1831 (later revised in 1845) and the second was written in 1848. The first “Helen” poem was in homage to the mother of a childhood friend and celebrated the beauty and nurturing power of women. It reads in part: “On desperate seas long wont to roam, / Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, / Thy Naiad airs have brought me home / To the glory that was Greece, / And the grandeur that was Rome.” Poe’s second Helen poem was written for a love interest of his named Sarah Helen Whitman and recounts the first time he laid eyes on her strolling under the moonlight. In the poem the garden roses where she walked smiled and were “enchanted by thee, and by the poetry by thy presence” When the moon finally “sank from sight” Poe goes on about Helen’s eyes: “Only thine eyes remained; / They would not go – they never yet have gone; / Lighting my lonely pathway home that night, / They have not left me (as my hopes have) since; / They follow me- they lead me through the years.”

Popular Songs

ON HELEN

Helen
a song by Patty Larkin

Helen Burns
a song by Ace Troubleshooter

Helen of Troy
a song by Robert Plant

Helen Wheels
a song by Paul McCartney

Hey Hey Helen
a song by ABBA

The Struggle of Helen
a song by MU330

Famous People

NAMED HELEN

Helen Keller (notable blind person, inspiration, author)
Helen Hunt (actress)
Helen Mirren (English actress)
Helen Hayes (actress)
Helen Beatrix Potter (children’s author and illustrator)
Helen Taft (U.S. First Lady)
Helen Baxendale (actress)
Helen Frankenthaler (artist)
Helen Humes (jazz and blues singer)
Helen Kane (singer, inspiration behind the "Betty Boop" character)
Helen Slater (actress)
Helen Fielding (author)
Helen Folasade Adu (aka Sade, British singer-songwriter)
Helen Keller (notable blind person, inspiration, author)
Helen Hunt (actress)
Helen Mirren (English actress)
Helen Hayes (actress)
Helen Beatrix Potter (children’s author and illustrator)
Helen Taft (U.S. First Lady)
Helen Baxendale (actress)
Helen Frankenthaler (artist)
Helen Humes (jazz and blues singer)
Helen Kane (singer, inspiration behind the "Betty Boop" character)
Helen Slater (actress)
Helen Fielding (author)
Helen Folasade Adu (aka Sade, British singer-songwriter)
Helen Keller (notable blind person, inspiration, author)
Helen Hunt (actress)
Helen Mirren (English actress)
Helen Hayes (actress)
Helen Beatrix Potter (children’s author and illustrator)
Helen Taft (U.S. First Lady)
Helen Baxendale (actress)
Helen Frankenthaler (artist)
Helen Humes (jazz and blues singer)
Helen Kane (singer, inspiration behind the "Betty Boop" character)
Helen Slater (actress)
Helen Fielding (author)
Helen Folasade Adu (aka Sade, British singer-songwriter)

Children of Famous People

NAMED HELEN

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

Historic Figures

WITH THE NAME HELEN

Helen Keller has got to be up there as one of the most remarkable women in American history; a true inspiration to us all. Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen contracted an illness which left her blind and deaf before the age of two. Having no sight or hearing capabilities, little Helen became an unruly, frustrated young girl and by the age of seven her parents could hardly control her. They needed to find some way to communicate. Enter Annie Sullivan – probably the most famous teacher there ever was and just what young Helen needed. Strict, patient and lively herself, Anne Sullivan was eventually successful in communicating words to Helen by spelling them in the palm of her hand. “W-A-T-E-R” was the breakthrough word as the two stood beneath the pump outside. As water streamed onto Helen’s one hand, Sullivan spelled the word in her other. Everything changed from that day forward. Eventually Helen Keller would learn to read, write and talk. She learned five different languages in Braille. She entered Radcliffe College (i.e., the female version of Harvard) by the time she was 20. She wrote books, she lectured and travelled all over the world, she met people of great importance who were equally as honored to meet her. She was given the highest honor a civilian can receive: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. So if you ever bellyache about any obstacles you may face, conjure up this woman who accomplished more than most people with so much less! A senator from Alabama said it best in his eulogy: that Helen Keller was “the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith."

Helen Keller has got to be up there as one of the most remarkable women in American history; a true inspiration to us all. Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen contracted an illness which left her blind and deaf before the age of two. Having no sight or hearing capabilities, little Helen became an unruly, frustrated young girl and by the age of seven her parents could hardly control her. They needed to find some way to communicate. Enter Annie Sullivan – probably the most famous teacher there ever was and just what young Helen needed. Strict, patient and lively herself, Anne Sullivan was eventually successful in communicating words to Helen by spelling them in the palm of her hand. “W-A-T-E-R” was the breakthrough word as the two stood beneath the pump outside. As water streamed onto Helen’s one hand, Sullivan spelled the word in her other. Everything changed from that day forward. Eventually Helen Keller would learn to read, write and talk. She learned five different languages in Braille. She entered Radcliffe College (i.e., the female version of Harvard) by the time she was 20. She wrote books, she lectured and travelled all over the world, she met people of great importance who were equally as honored to meet her. She was given the highest honor a civilian can receive: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. So if you ever bellyache about any obstacles you may face, conjure up this woman who accomplished more than most people with so much less! A senator from Alabama said it best in his eulogy: that Helen Keller was “the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith."

Helen Keller has got to be up there as one of the most remarkable women in American history; a true inspiration to us all. Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen contracted an illness which left her blind and deaf before the age of two. Having no sight or hearing capabilities, little Helen became an unruly, frustrated young girl and by the age of seven her parents could hardly control her. They needed to find some way to communicate. Enter Annie Sullivan – probably the most famous teacher there ever was and just what young Helen needed. Strict, patient and lively herself, Anne Sullivan was eventually successful in communicating words to Helen by spelling them in the palm of her hand. “W-A-T-E-R” was the breakthrough word as the two stood beneath the pump outside. As water streamed onto Helen’s one hand, Sullivan spelled the word in her other. Everything changed from that day forward. Eventually Helen Keller would learn to read, write and talk. She learned five different languages in Braille. She entered Radcliffe College (i.e., the female version of Harvard) by the time she was 20. She wrote books, she lectured and travelled all over the world, she met people of great importance who were equally as honored to meet her. She was given the highest honor a civilian can receive: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. So if you ever bellyache about any obstacles you may face, conjure up this woman who accomplished more than most people with so much less! A senator from Alabama said it best in his eulogy: that Helen Keller was “the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith."