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With a brand new baby girl in the British royal family, there’s a very princessy atmosphere at the moment. Looking back at my recent blog entries, I think I must have tuned into this vibe in some spooky sort of way, because this year I have already covered the names of three fairytale princesses who have featured in Disney films – Rapunzel, Aurora, and Melody.

While everyone’s in a princess-themed mood, I thought I’d cover one more, since we went to see the recent Disney film Cinderella in the school holidays a couple of weeks ago. It starred Australian film star Cate Blanchett as the elegantly wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine, and Lily James in the title role. It’s a faithful old-school rendering of the fairytale, the 1950s animated version brought to life.

The story of Cinderella has deep roots, because an ancient Greek story tells of a Greco-Egyptian slave girl named Rhodopis (“rosy cheeks”). While she was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals, flew to the city of Memphis, and dropped it into the lap of the king. The king, impressed by the beautiful shape of the sandal and the strangeness of the occurrence, sent his men in all directions to find the sandal’s owner, and when she had been located, Rhodopis was brought to the city to become his queen. This is the oldest known version of the Cinderella tale.

Rhodopis was a real person, a beautiful Thracian courtesan from the 6th century BC who was a fellow slave to the fable teller Aesop. Later she was taken to Egypt and freed for an enormous sum by the brother of the poet Sappho, who had fallen in love with her. Alas for romance, Sappho wrote a poem accusing Rhodopis of stealing from her brother – she calls her Doricha, which might have been her real name, and Rhodopis her professional name.

There are parallels to the Cinderella story in several cultures, where a good, hard-working girl is oppressed by her stepmother and at least one step-sister or half-sister. In China she is Ye Xian (“leaf edge”), in Indonesia and Malaysia she is Bawang Putih (“garlic”), in Vietnam she is Tam (“broken rice”), and in Korea she is Kongji (“sweet wisdom”). It is also reminiscent of the legend of the British queen Cordelia, and her horrible sisters.

The earliest of the modern European Cinderella stories comes from Giambattista Basile in 1684, set in Naples. The heroine is a princess named Zezolla, whose governess persuades her to murder her hated stepmother and beg her father to make the governess step-mama instead. All seems well until the governess sends for her hitherto-unknown six daughters from her previous marriage, who force Zezolla to work as their kitchen slave. Familiar touches are a fairy benefactress, and a lost slipper which brings about marriage to the king.

The stepsisters rename Zezolla as Gatta Cenerentola, with Gatta meaning “cat” to indicate she is as lowly as an animal, while Cenerentola means “little ashes” to describe her dirty, stained appearance (you could loosely translate it as Little Ash-cat). The name Zezolla may be from the common Italian place name Zolla, meaning “mound of earth”; in support of my theory, several of the stepsisters have names based on Italian places.

When Charles Perrault adapted the story into French in 1697, he dropped the cat part and translated Cenerentola as Cendrillon, as this can also be understood as “little ashes”. (Cendrillon is the younger stepsister’s name for the heroine; the older and meaner one calls her Culcendron, meaning “ash bum”, as she was forced to sit in the ashes and get a dirty bottom).

Perrault added a fairy godmother, pumpkin, and glass slippers to the story, but the biggest change he made was to Cendrillon’s personality. While Zezolla was a cunning murderess, Cendrillon was humble, patient, and sweet-tempered, so the happy ending seems like a reward for her virtue. Perrault’s fairytale is seen as the classic Cinderella story, and was the basis for the 1950 Disney film.

The Brothers Grimm adapted the story into German in 1812, naming the heroine Aschenputtel. It’s difficult to translate, but can be understood as “ash slut, ash wench”. In this darker story, the father joins in the abuse, and doesn’t acknowledge Aschenputtel as his own daughter, but rather his first wife’s child from her previous marriage, so she has a stepfather and stepmother both! The stepsisters are punished with blindness and mutiliation, rather than the forgiveness bestowed upon them in other versions.

It is striking that the heroine’s real name is never given, except in the Italian version, where it seems to be a bit of a joke. Modern adaptations of the story often say that her name is Ella (in the 2015 film it’s short for Eleanor), and Cinderella can therefore be understood as “Ella of the cinders”. Only in the 1950 Disney film is Cinderella the heroine’s actual name, chosen by her parents.

Perrault’s Cendrillon was first translated into English in 1729 by Robert Samber, and immediately became a classic. Cendrillon was Anglicised to Cinderilla, and changed to Cinderella in subsequent editions. Cinderella looks like a reasonably faithful English version of Cendrillon, but the meaning changes subtly during the translation process, as it now looks as if it means “little cinders” rather than “little ashes”.

This makes the name rather more attractive, because cinders are solid, rather than dusty like ashes, and do not have the same connotations of humiliation (“sackcloth and ashes”). Ashes symbolise death, but cinders are the embers of a fire, smouldering hot coals suggesting love and life waiting to be rekindled. I’ve often heard people suggest Ember as a girl’s name with beautiful symbolism, so Cinderella cannot be said to have a bad meaning.

Cinderella has been used as a personal name since the 18th century, and was most common overall in the 19th century. It has been most popular in the United States, and currently there are more than a thousand adults in the US named Cinderella. It peaked in the US in 1951 at 23 baby girls, the year after the Disney film was released. I have found quite a few women named Cinderella in Australian records, and remarkably, nearly always as a first name, not in the middle.

Cinderella is a rare name, closely connected to the fairytale, and given wide public recognition by the Disney films. Although Cinderella is a sweet character who combines a kind heart with great resilience, and has all her dreams come true, the name and story are troubling in many ways. Cinderella was abused and victimised by her family, and her name is one created by bullies to further humiliate and degrade her.

However, it would be a rather fun middle name, and even as a first name is easily shortened to Cindy, Indie, or Ella. And remember what the Disney song said: Cinderella, you’re as lovely as your name!

Cinderella received an approval rating of 28%. 33% of people thought the name Cinderella was tacky and ridiculous, while 28% believed it would lead to teasing and jokes. However, 9% of people thought that nicknames such as Ella made the name seem more usable. 4% of people were bothered that in the story, the name Cinderella was given to be hurtful and humiliating.