Eponine in the latest movie
A little while ago there was this debate on Nameberry about the name Eponine (ay-po-neen), now in the spotlight because the movie Les Misérables is taking American fans by storm. Actually, there are several threads on the internet about this name, and it is a much-searched baby name. People will inevitably be curious about Eponine as a name for their daughter, and opinions most definitely vary on whether it should be used. Some say it is too much the character's name to be used on another face, some say the name goes back further than the play and can be a real choice. I'll give you the facts, and you can decide for yourself if Eponine should be used on today's babies.
Eponine, French variant of Epona from the Latin name Eponina (sometimes spelled Epponnina), all meaning "mare," which is "female horse," and/or "great mare." The exception is Eponina's -ina ending, making it "little horse/mare."
Eponina and Epona go back further than Hugo's Éponine Thénardier, whose story is tragic, yet interesting. The character in the 1862 novel grew up pampered and beautiful, a reversal of the typical rags-to-riches stories. Don't misunderstand - Eponine's parents ran an inn, so they were not poor, but later they went bankrupt and turned into thieves. The novel focuses on characters living in France during a desperate and horrible time of disease, political turmoil and other suffering. (I won't give too much away, as in order to actually consider using this name, you really need to read the novel and be familiar with the character.) Eponine's parents are pretty much scumbags, and eventually Eponine makes money with her father begging, but after falling in love she becomes a better person. Her redemption is the essence and importance of her character. She's not the greatest literary character ever, but there's nothing especially bad about her. Let's just say she's human. She loves a man named Marius, who loves a woman named Cosette. Eponine dies protecting Marius, although he may have been in that position due to Eponine's manipulation. Regardless, the audience sympathizes with her.
Now, it is assumed that Hugo invented Eponine. It is unlikely, as all he would have to do is take a legit Latin name and add a typical French -ine ending. Some say the name was supposed to convey a feeling of being made-up, as Eponine's mother took it from a "tacky" romance novel, but if you've ever read a romance novel the names sound pretty classy...although I'm not sure about old French ones. Even after the novel came out, not many parents chose to use the name. But one commonly overlooked fact is that Charles Baudelaire dedicated a poem to Hugo in Les Fleurs du Mal, titled Le Petit Vieilles, and that its subject of eroticism and decadence most likely directly influenced Hugo's naming of the Thenardier sisters. There are other uses of the name before this, and proof that the name was used in real life. As you will read below, the name was used in direct connection to the goddess Epona.
Epona, on the other hand, was the goddess in Gaulish and Roman tradition, protector of horses, mules and donkeys, as well as fertility, and later armies. You won't find many Gaulish, Pre-Celtic or Celtic dieties in Roman mythology, but Epona was apparently just that influential and/or lovable. It could have been due to a similarity to Demeter, known to be a great mare herself. She even had a proper cult, like Minerva, Juno and Jupiter. To this day, Epona has some influence. I happen to live in Michigan, where there is the Epona Celebration on Mackinac Island in June (high tourist season). Mackinac Island does not allow cars, only bikes and horses. It's an amazing place that seems to be stuck in a previous decade (like maybe the Victorian period).
A personal photo from my honeymoon to Mackinac Island
Now we come to Eponina. Eponina, also known as Saint Eponine and Holy Eponina, was the wife of a Roman man named Julius Sabinus, who rebelled against the Roman Empire. She was a virtuous woman who symbolized patriotism, and she chose to die with her husband once he was captured. As Eponina was a common name from ancient times to post-Revolutionary France, I believe Eponine, which Hugo supposedly made up, would have been today's Porscha to the historical Portia, Bentlee to Bentley, Graycin to Grayson. You get the idea. Trendy, made-up variant, that is intended to make the child seem richer or more fabulous. But now, Eponine has literary credibility. It is also worth noting that Azelma, Eponine's sister in the story, has a name derived from another loyal wife in historical times. In fact, I think Hugo just didn't like names that weren't proper and traditional, as he commented on an "anarchy of baptismal names."
Important note: Empona, a variant of these, means "heroine." (As in female hero, not the drug.)
As a name, Eponine, Epona and Eponina have never ranked in the U.S. top 1000. As none or less than five babies were given the name Eponine in 2011, I turned to White Pages to tell me how many people named Eponine were living in the U.S., and the grand total is 7. White Pages may not be able to accurately track all people, names, etc, but this seems fairly accurate. While I was at it, White Pages says there are four people named Epona and one Eponina. Eponine is much more popular in France than it is in the U.S., yet it is still extremely rare there.
If Eponine is too reminiscent of the character for you, but you love the history and imagery, I'd suggest Epona or Eponina.