Meaning of the Name “Vanessa”

· Etymology


Oh! To know the meaning of the name Vanessa, of which the Internet is full of contradictory information, outright falsehoods, and copies of other web pages. Let me tell you outright, Vanessa cannot mean butterfly, if the butterfly was named for Vanessa! Vanessa cannot be named after a Greek goddess, Phanessa, who never existed, and which is the name of another species of butterfly, distinct from the one just named.  It is claimed, and this was the information which we found several years ago, that this name, the sound of which I much like, came from a word coinage minted by Jonathan Swift. That may be, but a pet name for Veronica, Venissa, or Venisse, existed in England 400 years earlier.  But even if we give credence to the idea that we owe the name to Swift, we would want to know something more interesting than the fact that the name was partially derived from the surname Vanrigh, which,  if what TIME Magazine1 wrote about the Dutch language many years ago, must have been a harsh-sounding mouthful.  So, here, we put lustre and truth back, with a touch of our own etymological journeys, into the explication of the origins of the name Vanessa.


The lineage of the name Vanessa, at the least, suggests nobility, and at its acme, divinity, with a midpoint of devotion to the divine, or on a more earthly level, the noble. The name suggest both light and love.  All the strands of our investigation can be tied together to lend credence to this suggestion. Jonathan Swift, in his subconciousness, had to be aware of these ideas, at least remotely, because university education of that time, until some moment in the early Twentieth Century, demanded knowledge of Latin, Greek, and perhaps, depending on the course of study, Hebrew, from whence we will show the strands that lead down to this purported neologism of the Eighteenth Century. Traced  all the way back to the Semitic roots, with Swift’s addition of a Dutch prefix (this melding of languages being formally prohibited in proper word-coinage), the name means “from a star”.  Following one of our original lines of thinking, we could add, that a posterior moment of time, it would mean “from a victorious star”.  However, the reader is also offered another possibility, “The Lord is gracious”.  This choice does not necesarily contradict the story of the meaning, such as will be presented here.

Technique in the Derivation of the Meaning

A few years back, this writer was interested in the etymology of the name Vanessa, and found only two theories, without much more than a couple of lines for each, on the origin of the name: that it was coined by Swift, or that it was a variation of Veronica.

Since that time, at least we see how Swift allegedly coined his word.  However, the Internet is also full of other ideas, some of which we must definitely discard, and others which need to be suitably integrated into some kind of whole.

In our imagination, with a very limited knowledge of the Classics, and of their language, we noted, following certain rules regarding transformations of words, that there was a similarity to the Latin plural of fanum, in the dative and ablative: fanes. We made a mistake, and looked up such a word in the Greek language, where we get a word related to the ideas of light, brightness, or appearance, this latter idea manifested in the word “epiphany“. (It makes more sense to say that light appears in the sky, than to argue that the darkness comes forth!)2

At the same time, we followed another line of thinking, that of a prefix falling away, as that of the primitive “ge” of German past participles, which eventually gave way to “y” and finally to an almost complete disappearance in the English language.  This suggested that the origin could be Hebrew.  But better yet, we have found a similar transformation within the Semitic languages.

The foregoing shows that we considered three regions along the Mediterranean Sea, Greece, Rome, and Israel – to which we might add Babylonia and Syria.  Whatever Mr. Swift was thinking, would have to fit in with words that originated in that area.

 Starting at the Bottom

Not to give a bad example, and to suggest a Götterdämmerung, we will start at the low end of the meanings, mere mortality, albeit, noble.

The name Vanessa has a suffix which it shares with priestess, countess, marchess, duchess and princess. This is more evident even in Latin-based languages, where we have Vanesa, sacerdotisa, condesa, marquesa, duquesa, and princesa.  With the notable exception of the word “marquess”, the suffix suggests the feminine, and in all the cases we show, nobility.  Other “ess” suffixes in the English language are not relevant to our argument, not because of cherry-picking, but because there must exist a correponding “esa” ending in the Romance languages, and not by exception.  For example, lioness is leona in Spanish, but tigresa is frowned upon by the guardians of that language.  This is more evident in some words which modern dictionaries consider degrading, when speaking of the “ess” suffix. We might suggest, hostess and stewardess, and we can think of no words in this category which have a corresponding “esa” suffix.

All Honour and Glory to God

Perhaps primitive peoples could honour their gods by constructing some platform or mound, of wood, earth or stone, but a a cult with dignity needed temples, which could only be constructed with the imagination, resources, and command of the noble class.

The word temple in Latin is fanum.  One of the adjectival meanings of its derivative, fanaticus, is “inspired by god”.3

The Pantheon

The pantheon of which we speak is partially metaphoric, but its luminaries include the Roman sun-god Jupiter, head of the real Pantheon, in which we also find the goddess Venus.  She has a Phoenician-Syrian equivalent, Ashtoreth o Astarte, from which we get the name of Hebrew origin, Esther.  Then we find the Greek deity Phanes, and the fictional feminine counterpart, Phanessa. These feminine terms find their counterpart in  the Egyptian sun-god, Ra, and once we leave polytheism, the Judeao-Christian God of gods, YHWH. All these names are connected with the idea of giving light, whether real or metaphorical.

Real and Fancied Etymology of the Name "Vanessa"

Real and Fancied Etymology of the Name “Vanessa” Click on Image to Enlarge

Except for the Judeo-Christion God, our luminaries are suns, and the sun, we learned in school, is a star; or, if we prefer, all stars are suns, and these are sources of visisble light. The list is not even exhaustive, for we could add Diana, the Moon Goddess, and Thea (Thia, Theia, Theia-Euryphaessa, or just Euryphaessa), a Greek goddess of light.4

Looking at this more closely, we see that Venus is referred to not only as the Evening Star, but also as the Morning, or Day Star – the latter poetic title being shared with the Sun. The goddess Astarte is an equivalent to Venus, and the word changed in Hebrew to Esther, which according to the Talmud, and perhaps Psalm 22, again refer to the Morning Star.5  Ra, the Sun-God; Phanes, a Greek deity also implying, through the etymology of the word, light or brightness;  God, as expressed in the Nicene Creed, “God of God, Light of Light”.

Whether one or several deities were being adored, a fitting abode was required for cultic observances, and that would be a temple, of which the pantheon was an example; and, as already defined, a “fanaticus” is a devotee of such a place. This may be a worshipper, its priestess, or its founder.  As a founder, in the manner of some “noble” Caesar, one can proclaim oneself a god.  As a simple believer, of whatever rank, one accepts the presence of a deity in the building consecrated to the holy one.

That Vanessa should mean butterfly becomes symbolically impossible now, because the Greek for that creature is “psyche”, which, in mythology, was a mere human, though dabbling with loving a god.*

From this point, we can emphasize, not through Psyche’s love, but through “Venus”, a connection with most of the preceding. We must caution that this is an original contribution on our part, as we pretend to force the word origin to times beyond the Proto-Indo-European corpus of words to some earlier time, in the belief that there must exist a nexus to the Semitic, for example. (see :

Here we can mention that “veneration” is a word derived from the same source as “Venus”, wen-, suggesting love or desire.  For the Christian, “God is Love”. Love shines, while hatred darkens, starting with the face.

The same root gives us Venice, which we was understood by the inhabitants as a desirable place.  More to the point, and not even having to depart much from the pronunciation of our root, are the Swedish and Norwegian words for friend: vän, venn; and their feminines, väninna, veninne.  Based on the description of Swift’s interest in playing with words, and his knowledge of a bit of Swedish, and considering his “girl” friend, his väninna”, the jump from “Van” plus “essa” from “vän” plus “inna” would have been child’s play.

Now, if “Vanessa” is derived from Veronica, we have two etymologies.  Wikipedia, by its wording, would have our American Heritage Dictionary wrong, that it the construction is not “true” plus “icon”, verus-iconicus, and its Greek predecessor. Instead, it is a word from the Athenian, meaning, “to bring victory”.  This definition does not detract from the idea of the biblical Esther, who brought a great victory to her people.  “Nike”, victory – winged, like Psyche, but neither of these two are true stars.  Yet, the name Veronica does, through its original form, Pherenike, lend itself to a possible transformation into Vanessa, even if through false etymology. We explain this further below, as we also do with our second novel concept, in which we suggest that, what we have here, is a feminine form of John, a variant of Johanna, or Ivana.

This gives us “God is gracious”, or merciful, not far from “God is Love”.  A variant given on some web-sites is “Gift of God”, which we find as synonymous with the meaning of the name Dorothy or Dorothea.  This meaning connects with the previous one through the idea of “favour”.  If the best gift of God, or the gods, is light, in any of its meanings (illumination, understanding), then again, we can thank our lucky stars – or God. We believe to have found a “missing link” between Vanessa and Ivana in the rare Portuguese name Ivanizia.  First, though, let us consider the possibilities of Veronica as a possible root.

Veronica, and some Explanations of how Letters change over Time.

 Which source are we to believe, the dictionaries which insist that the name “Veronica” is derived from St. Veronica – a rather circular argument, or, the obviously ex post facto etymology that this name means true image, from Latin roots, vera, iconus; or shall we believe Wikipedia, which at least gives us an idea from where the biblical woman might have gotten her name, meaning “she who brings victory”, where the victory part is related to the Greek winged goddess, Nikē.6

The origin, as explained there, is Phereníkē, or Pheroníkē.  If we accept that “ph” can transform into “f” and then to “v”, and the “k” into “c”, and any vowel into any other vowel, we can say that the argument is reasonable, unless a good counterproposal negates this logic.

What we would be more interested in knowing, is if there is a good reason to believe that “Veronica” could changed into the supposed Anglo-Norman “Venisse”, or “Venissa”.7

The first problem, and it is the most important, is to eliminate the “r”.  There are several arguments that suggest this is possible, the first of which is in the very fact of the conjugation of certain verbs forms derived from Latin, such as Italian. The infinitive usually ends in “re”, which, in some subjunctive forms, can end up as “-sse”.  If that sounds weak, let us take for example, the modern-day Spanish language, where, in the imperfect subjunctive, “iera” and “iese” give words of identical meaning,8  or that the Spanish word for “south” can be both sur or sud. Going back into the Proto-Indo-European, it is claimed that “toast” is derived from the root “ters”, from which words such as “dry” and “torrid” are derived.  In more recent times, we have “Maggie”, “Madge”, and “Meg” as derivations of Margaret. Also, consider “fo’c’sle” for “forecastle”.9

The question of the “c” to “s” or “ss” is easily explained.  It is the difference between the Centum languages, of which Greek is an example.  In parts of Europe, the “k” sound became an “s” in the so-called Satem languages.  An ambiguity of interest is the word “Celtic”, where both the ”s” and the “k” sound are possible.  Changing a single consonant into a double, goes by the technical name “gemination”, and is also allowed.

If our explanation is formally correct, it can be seen that “Veronica” can convert into “Vanessa”, even if we do not know the complete origin of the former.  The greatest weakness of this derivation is that it does not fit in with our main argument about stars and deities, unless converted into our “from a victorious star”.10  But then, are not victors outstanding “stars” who outshine others; and so, might even the word “Veronica” point to “phanes“? Even if this is not an etymological certainty, we can prove a relationship in meaning.11

Not too Swift

Esther was mentioned earlier, in connection with the goddess Astarte, because this was the name of a friend of Jonathan Swift.  Esse was supposed to be a pet form of Esther.  We have heard “Ese” in connection with “Ezequiel”, (in Spanish), so this sounds quite plausible.

The creation of a name joining the variant “essa” to “Van”, however, is linguistically contemptible.  While our online sources speak of the name Vanhomrigh, more likely, it should be Van Homrigh, so the creation becomes “Van Essa”, “Van” being Dutch for the German “Von”.  Who would really want to deify such a name as this:   Von Esse, “from the chimney”!  Or the Romance language equivalents, “De + esse”, “from being”.  We do prefer, “from the star”, but pet names created by savants should be devoid of ugly meanings of which their creators must be cognizant, and Swift must have been aware, at least subconsciously, of what he was coining.  Doubtlessly, he did not intend the worst choice of among our conjectures.

Finally, tying in with our previous comments, by separating the “Van” from the rest of her surname, we might surmise a certain aristocratic background.  In that case, we must find the aristocracy among the divinities mentioned earlier, because there is no significant name on Earth to be attached to the “Van”.

A New Theory

We leave the readers now with a new theory, deriving from the “pantheon” mentioned above, at what we might call (to the chagrin of atheists) the maxium Deity, God, Jehovah, YHWH.  It has been mentioned that we believe the word “John” to be a plausible source.  A Latinized form of the Hebrew is Yōḥānā  (approximately Yohana, if the word is not rendered properly in the computer being used), which gives rise to the Greek Iōānnēs, (Iohannes).  The Romans did not have the letter “J” originally, and the “o”, in Proto-Indo-European, the so-called o-grade form, was represented by a “w”, which in Arabic and Hebrew, the wāw, waw, vav, or the vau, come back to us as “o”, sometimes, as often in Portuguese word endings, or in the English word “do”, pronounced as long “oo”, as the “u” in American pronunciation of “duty”.  This “U” did not exist in Roman times, so was written with “V”, and as we have just seen, “vau” and “vav” are synonymous terms.  Thus, Johannes can easily be written, in capital letters, IVAN, be dropping the last syllable, and ceasing to pronounce the aspirate.  Thus, the Russian form of the name is more Latinized than the English form.

The following image shows some of the masculine forms, the feminine has already been incorporated into our previous image.

Forms of the Name "John" in various Languages. As the "I", "Y", or "J" disappears, a "V" Comes to Light.

Forms of the Name “John” in various Languages. As the “I”, “Y”, or “J” disappears, a “V” Comes to Light. A version for feminine forms is on the Spanish page for this article. Click to enlarge.

The feminine, as in most cases, is obtained by adding “-a”, hence, Ivana.  We have already seen that many words form their feminine in “essa”, or in another language, “esa”.  Thus, we get “Ivanessa”.  Now we are left with just one more transformation.

The regular past participle of German, and the Anglo-Saxon words begins with “ge-“  In the English language, the “g”, as a letter, is pronounced with the same sound as “j”, and as we have seen, the “J” was written with “I” by the Romans, and this often happened in Medieval times, so the prefix, in fact, usually ended up as “i” or the similar-sounding “y” (Cf. Spanish Yrigoyen, Irigoyen).  An example of the latter is the rare word “yclept”, while the former is seen in “handiwork”. This prefix was eventually dropped, as linguistically meaningless as the vermiform appendix is our bodies.*

Voilà!  Vanessa! “Gift of God”!

As a final note, in an effort to find even more evidence for our theory, we found some exceedingly rare names on the Internet, with similar suffixes, of which the most interesting was the Portuguese Ivanizia.  If this isn’t a cross between Ivana and Vanessa, nothing is!


Before life, in the Book of Beresith, or Genesis, God made light.  Even under Darwinian interpretations, light implies heat, and heat – in the right amount – is necessary for the lower forms of life upon which the higher forms feed.  The name Vanessa represents, therefore, through the Hebrew, a gift of God, and through the Greek, “appearance”, the appearance of that gift, the appearance of light.  As such, she has the spark of the Divinity, or, for the pagan, a divinity, Venus, if you may.


Oh, Vanessa, delight of my eyes thou art
Thy genesis, ab ovo: that is, from the start
From the alpha, alpha girl, you shan’t evanesce
(Or shall you?) Once that we caress,
Oh, princess! Oh countess! You’ll never be less,
And nothing you’ve done requires redress;
Oh Dawn! Oh Light! Oh Monarch-wing –
To thee this little verse I bring;
But if with puns your name I punish,
Stay thy ban, for here I finish.


1 This article has not been found on line. However, the search engine does give comments on the harsh sound of the language. It was on the last page, probably after 1984, and before 2005.
Our idea of tracing back to the Greek was not original, although we did jump directly, by error, to the dictionary. The butterfly species “Phanessa” has been traced to the same Greek word. More in next footnote.
3American Heritage Dictionary, 1981
4 This prefixed form of the word Phanessa has an “n”-infix to the “phaessa” part . Perhaps Fabricius was thinking of her. References can be found here.  Euryphaessa is not mentioned in the biographical parts of this author’s dictionaries (though mythological figures are included).
5 We cannot vouch for what the Talmud says, and a perusal of Psalm 22 in about 2 dozen bibles in 3 or four languages gives very few results to back up this claim made by Wikipedia in its article on “Esther”. No citation is given to back up the claim made.
6 The disturbing thing for this author is that all his dictionaries, English, French, and German, agreed on the origin of the name, never the one given under “Veronica” in Wikipedia.
7 This information can be had doing a search for the terms, Vanessa, Anglo-Norman Venisse. The results are considered of low quality, so none are cited.
8 Some may dispute that assertion, and claim that there is a slight difference in the doubt which the subjunctive expresses, but we will go along with the majority opinion.
9 On a more academic level:  In the Germanic languages, the “R” disappeared from many original Nordic, specifically Norwegian, words.  [Krahe, Hans, Germanische Sprachwissenschaft, I. Einleitung und Lautlehre, 2. Auflage, Berlin: Walter Gruyter & Co.1948, cf. p. 92, §89, “los”, related to English “loose”, and the suffix “-less” – the original form had an “R” ending; p. 102, §89, reminded this writer that the Latin of “sister”, is “soror”, thus, one “R” changed to “S”; p. 103, §89, “sand” was “sandr” in Old Norse, §89, “stall” was “stallr”.  In German, the “R” disappeared from the Old High German “weralt”, from which the English “world” is derived, though the “R” is absent in standard British pronunciation.]  For an English source, see Peter S. Baker, The Anglo-Saxons and Their Language, “1.3.3. West Germanic and Low German“, where there is a brief mention.
10 A French web-site, in our research of several years ago, suggested the existence of a Saint Vanessa – on whom no information existed, but we now have found that this is the feast of Saint Veronica, thus again diminishing the lustre of Swift’s so-called coinage. This link may not be the original source.
11Kirkpatrick, Betty, Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. [Penguin; Harmondsworth, 1988], item 644, p. 31 – here “victor” appears as an entry under “star”.

Below are some comments with respect to our introduction.

  1. While it is repeated ad nauseum that Vanessa is derived from “Vanrigh” plus “Esse”, we get, from a more reputable web-site, that Swift’s Esther was related to one Peter Van Homrigh, with Homrigh written separately. See (
  2. We find 2 different butterflies, one called Vanessa, and the other, Phanessa. One web-site refers to the latter as the mystic goddess of an ancient Greek brotherhood. It is suggested that the botanist Fabricius got his idea from that, but this is mocked on one site,, and given a more detailed evaluation on a university web-site, written by Sergey Karpukhin, with no title:–_000_aacu7rd8jqdulo4o8k24p1sc1370046903960emailandroidcom_&T=text%2Fhtml;%20charset=WINDOWS-1252


Comments RSS
  1. Emmanuel Koulouris

    For sure Phanessa is Greek. The word is phane+essa. And it follows Greek etymology and grammar. Phane means to appear or something you can observe even from distance or small . The epithet – essa exists in Greek grammar along with – ousa for females. It characterise being in a state or having something. It is a 3rd epithet.
    Ancient Greeks were calling all non Greeks as Varvars or Barbars because of the way they were speaking. It is easy to understand that if you repeat the name Phanessa in Greek it will sound as Vanessa.

    Dear Emmanuel: Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately, the reference you have given me is behind a paywall (that is, if I want to go beyond the immediate page to which you have given me the link. Now, in no place do I deny that “Phanessa” is a Greek word, I have at least 8 references in my text – acknowledging that it is Greek, and one in an image – under “Greek”. While I did not go into any kind of detail about the suffix, I also gave a reference to a Greek word ending in -essa. I think that with the references to Latin, most readers would already be overburdened, and verifiable references to Greek would be difficult for an even larger number. For those who can manage at least the use of a Greek dictionary, my source may have been (I have used it) A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell, Henry George, 1811-1898, available on, specifically at I looked at words on page 1652 and 1655 – 6. The translations there do not prove you wrong, but I think it must be admitted, that were I to limit myself to the information you have provided, that “phane” means to appear, etc., I would not have a very interesting story.
    Further attestation to the Greek contribution is that I mention “Greek” 33 times vs. “Latin”, which is mentioned 12 times.
    On a different not, your explanation of the pronunciation of the “ph” by a foreigner and as heard by the Greek listener is interesting, in that I have not found any reference to it elsewhere. But it is true that what a textbook tells learners about the pronunciation often differs abysmally from what it truly should be.
    Be that as it may, the main problem is to trace the word to its Proto-Indo-European roots on the one hand (for which I can find no material which would fit admirably with the present article); and to explain how Jonathan Swift – or Northern Europe, if you prefer – got hold of this name. One writer, whose opinion I rejected for putting the cart before the horse, suggested that the name was of Icelandic origin, from whence it went to Norway. Sure, anything is possible, but in that case, the most logical explanation would have been that some Viking invented the word in Iceland, and repatriated it to his historical homeland!
    And while I do not have at my disposal any arguments to refute the suggestion that your “Varvars” pronounce a “ph” in such a way that it sounds like a “v” to the Greek ear (if I understood correctly), the fact that we have to contend with in English-speaking countries, is that texts say that the Greek “ph” is pronounced “f”, which we see in words such as philosophy (twice!) or photon. Were there to be a very clear connection between phanessa and vanessa, I would hope to find some commonly used word such as the two just given, transcribed as vilosovy or voton – with the required etymological connection to the original Greek.

    Yours truly,


  2. Vanessa

    I wonder if there is a relation between the names Vanessa and Vanozza (like Vanozza de’ Cattanai).

    I also heard that the turkisch town Avanos was in former times was called Vanessa. Yet I don’t know If this information is confirmed or trustworthy.

    The Latin word ,,vanus” meaning void or empty also reminds me of Vanessa.

    The etymology behind Vanessa can be really versatile.

    Thank you for this profound article on the name. It’s much appreciated! :)

    Reply : Thank you for your contribution. Indeed, your suggestion of the name Vanozza de’ Cattanai led me to find that Vanozza is a medieval Italian short form for Giovanna (credit to behindthe This fits in with my idea, “. . . we suggest that, what we have here, is a feminine form of John, a variant of Johanna . . . “. No etymology has been found for the Turkish place name, which I saw as “Venessa”, I suspect this name comes from the time that Greece occupied the Anatolia, basically, what is now modern Turkey. As for the Latin word “vanus”, it would be bad scholarship to say it is not possible, but it is an insult to think of Vanessa that way.

  3. Vanessa

    Thank you for the quick response!

    I didn’t mean to insult the name Vanessa. I just found the word stem vanus to be similar to Vanessa. It just reminded me of the ‘Vanitas’ symbolism, which is kinda interesting to me. I perceive Vanessa as a very romantic and earthly name. Its sound has a certain mystery about it. It’s classy yet down to earth, but that’s just my perception^^.

    Thank you again for your research. I’m glad to have found your webpage :)

    Reply: Dear Vanessa,

    Of course, I looked into as many possible origins of Vanessa as possible. We discount the bad, and look at the good. I agree that it is a romantic name.

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