The name is popularly believed to be invented by Jonathan Swift, he is said to have created the name out of his tutoree’s first and last name, Esther Vanhomrigh. The name was used for a character in his 1726 poem, Cadenus & Vanessa. It has also been suggested that Swift may have been inspired by the Greek mystical name, Phanes or that he elaborated an Anglo-Norman cognate of Veronica, Venisse.
The name has often been erroneously listed as being a name of Greek origin with the meaning of butterfly. This is false. It is, however, the name of a genus of butterfly which was possibly named for the Jonathan Swift character.
The name did not catch on in usage until the 20th-century, it was internationally popularized by British actress, Vanessa Redgrave (b.1937).
Currently, Vanessa is the 32nd most popular female name in Austria, (2010). Her rankings in other countries are as follows:
- # 38 (Switerland, German-Speaking Cantons, 2010)
- # 78 (Germany, 2011)
- # 71 (Croatia, Vanesa, 2010)
- # 88 (Croatia, 2010)
- # 106 (United States, 2010)
- # 355 (France, 2009)
Other forms of the name include:
- Vanesa (Croatian/Czech/Slovak/Slovene)
- Vanessa (Dutch/French/English/German/Italian/Portuguese/Spanish/Swedish)
- Vanessza (Hungarian)
- Wanesa/Wanessa (Polish)