Friday, August 08, 2008


I try not to read the obituaries because the stories tend to stay with me but sometimes I find the names irresistible. This week, I saw an obituary for a woman named, Ruth Lesley. Did no one say these two names together before the name went on the birth certificate?

Bob Hope's real first name was Leslie Townes Hope. Legend has it that he started going by Bob because when they read the roll at school he was, "Hope, Leslie" leading classmates to call him, "Hopeless". Other stories have him changing his name to Lester before finally taking the stage name, "Bob Hope".

There was a short time during the 1990s when the name Tierney was en vogue for girls. I always joked that Tierney would be the bossiest girl on the playground but now I fear that Ruth Leslie might give Tierney a run for the money.

Leslie started life as a Scottish surname in the late 12th century tracing its origin back to a Scottish nobleman, Bartholomew. His land was known as Lesslyn from the words, "lesse ley", meaning, "sheltered pasture". Some sources suggest the name actually means, "garden of hollies". Its use as a first name, initially only for men, is more recent. Probably not much earlier than the mid-1800s.

Usage in the United States:

By the 1880s, Leslie was moderately popular for men and was in occasional use for women. This trend continues until the 1940s where the name begins to pick up steam for women and the spelling, "Lesley", is also in regular use for men and women. By the 1950s, the number of female babies named Leslie, Lesley or Leslee outnumbers the male babies named Leslie or Lesley. In the 1960s, the spelling Lesli makes the top 1000 names of the decade for girls(but Leslee drops away).

Leslie for girls peaks at number 70 during the 1970s and holds steady through the 1980s. In the 1990s it drops into the high 100s and remains there to this day. Leslie for boys has not been seen in the top 1000 since 1997.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Sarah asked if Tiffany was related to the name Stephanie and I knew it wasn't but I wasn't sure exactly how it wasn't. So, what started as a simple answer got complicated. You probably won't care and that is why I answered the question succinctly in the first sentence. To spare you the trouble of reading the rest of this. Now if only I could find a way to not want to write it. Then my laundry would be finished in a timely manner.

Tiffany, as we now know, is derived from the Greek name, Theophania, a name given to girls born on the feast of the Theophany. The Theophany was a day celebrating the manifestation of God in the form of Jesus (theo meaning 'God' and epiphaneia meaning 'manifestation').

Stephanie was first used as a girls' name in France and finds its root in the Greek name Stephanos. Despite the similar "phanos" component Stephanos and Theophanos are not related. Stephanos, appears to mean 'crowned with a wreath' with the word stephos meaning either 'twist' or 'wreath' or something that would indicate a garland or the making of a garland.

I got really caught up in why there are two forms of the name Stephanos in France. There is Estienne which became Etienne and there is Stephane. I'm sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation given the many different forms of the language we now call French that existed before France was France but I'd sure like to know how it came to pass. I found out how Estienne became the modern Etienne but not how Stephanos became Estienne (or Esteban as it is in Spanish).

Friday, May 16, 2008


Tiffany is one of the original names deemed "downwardly mobile" by noted name researchers Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran. It tends to conjure images of 1980s excessive consumerism or teen queen ditziness or gum-snapping trailer park moms in tube tops and dangly earrings. It does not tend to conjure images relating to ancient Christian ceremony and yet, the name Tiffany finds its root in exactly that.

Tiffany began life as the name , Theophania. It was given to girls born on January 6, the date of the Epiphany to Western Catholics and Theophany to Eastern Orthodox churches.
For our purposes, let's focus on the word theophany which means, "manifestation of God" and is the name of the feast which celebrated the manifestation of God in the form of Jesus. (Note: The Epiphany/Theophany is sometimes referred to as Twelfth Night but Twelfth Night is actually the night before, the night of January 5.)

The following names are among some that can be found in documents starting from the 13th century in France:

  • Tyfainne
  • Typhainne
  • Typheinne
  • Tifaine
  • Tiphaine
The name Tuffayna appears on a list of prostitutes from the southern French region of Toulouse (where Occitan was the language) from 1514.

These are from England before 1250:
  • Teffania
  • Thephania
  • Theffanie
  • Theophania
These are from England from 1250 - 1450:
  • Teffan
  • Teph'na
  • Thiphania
  • Tiffan
  • Tiffania
  • Tiphina
  • Tyffayne
These are from Brittany sometime between 1384 - 1600:
  • Tephaine
  • Teffaine
  • Tephaine
  • Theffaine
  • Theophaine
  • Thephaine
Its not difficult to see how Tiffany evolved from Theophania though I wonder how it is that Tiffany became the favored form once standardized spelling gained popularity. This is not exactly a scholarly work...just a blog post so I won't be answering that question here any time soon.

How did Tiffany go from a name with deeply spiritual significance to Christians to its current status? Apparently, Tiffany, for whatever reason, fell out of favor everywhere as the Middle Ages came to a close
(as a given name, this doesn't address Tiffany's status as a surname as in the case of Louis Comfort Tiffany). It does not appear in the top 1000 girls' names in the US until the 1960s. Probably not coincidentally, the movie, "Breakfast at Tiffany's", hit theaters in 1961 (the lead female character's name in the movie is Holly and not Tiffany but the movie seems to have given both names a boost). Tiffany at that time was associated with luxury and elegance and good taste.

Well, one person's "tasteful" is another person's "classy" and so went Tiffany. Tiffany had class coming out the yin-yang, it seems and by the 80s you couldn't swing a dead cat in a KMart without hitting a Tiffany. It was also during the 1980s that the Tiffany brand began a global expansion that might have brought a Tiffany store to a mall near you.

All good things must come to an end and in 1990, after peaking at number 16, Tiffany began a steady tumble down the charts coming to rest currently at number 212.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Maya has only recently come into the greater consciousness of American baby namers, appearing in the top 1000 names only as recently as the 1970s. Early usage has been attributed to a fanciful extension of the name May but I think its just as plausible that immigrant populations from Germany, Poland and Scandinavia brought the name into regular, if infrequent, usage. Not coincidentally, as multiculturalism gained popularity, so did Maya.

Many cultures have some form of the name Maya.
  • Maia is a figure in both Greek and Roman mythology (the month of May is named for the Roman Maia in particular).
  • Queen Maya was the mother of Buddha.
  • It is sometimes cited as a Hebrew name relating to the word, mayim, meaning 'water', however, this particular usage appears to be a modern one.
  • The name Maya occurs in Japan but does not appear to be a traditional Japanese name. Usage may be influenced by Mount Maya, a Japanese mountain named for the mother of Buddha.
  • Maija is a Finnish pet name for girls named Maria. Maja is similarly employed in places as varied as Germany, Poland, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and Russia.
  • Maya is a short form for Amalia in Spanish while Amaia/Amaya are of Basque origin.
  • Maya is argued to have an Arabic origin as well but this is disputed. A similar Arabic name, May, and a Lebanese singer by the name of Maya, appear to be the source of confusion. Usage of the name Maya in Arabic speaking countries appears to be modern and not traditional.
Anecdotally, this name seems to appeal to multiracial and multicultural families in particular. Of the Mayas I know or have known or know of:
  • One is half Asian Indian, half Caucasian-American.
  • Two are half Lebanese, half Caucasian-American.
  • One is half Japanese, half Vietnamese.
  • One is Arabic-American.
  • One is half African-American, half Jewish.
Rising from relative obscurity before the 1970s, Maya has become quite popular coming in at number 62 for the year 2007 (actually a slight drop from 2006 probably reflecting a leveling more than an actual drop). This is the sweet spot for a popular name. Popular enough to be familiar and easily recognizable but not so popular as to be annoying.

I am currently working on a re-organization of the 2007 popularity list that will combine name spellings and groupings (ie Sophie/Sophia/Sofie/Sofia will be considered one name). I'm interested to see what happens to Maya on the new list.

Bertha - By Special Request

In Norse mythology, Bertha, is the goddess of spinning. Perchta is the goddess of spinning and weaving in Teutonic mythology. The Old High German name, Perchta, is listed alternately as: Berctha, Percht, Berchte, Berahta, Perahta etc. Norse is a language descended from the same Proto-Germanic language as Old High German.

Because of the similarities between the goddesses Bertha and Perchta and their shared ancestral language they are thought to be variations on the same lore and thus, are believed to share the same Old High German root, behrat, meaning 'light'.

Because the German and Norse language contain no dental fricatives (as a result of the High German consonant shift occuring in the 3rd - 5th centuries AD which preceded written records) the pronunciation of Bertha outside of English speaking languages is closer to Berta (Think Mathilda, Mathias etc.)

Bertha was probably introduced outside of Germanic territories by the Saxons and Vikings. Queen Bertha of Kent, who was canonized, was very influential in introducing Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. Famous Berthas have included: several saints, 2 queens of France and a Byzantine empress.

The name Bertha enjoyed enormous popularity in the U.S. and Britain in the late 1800s but began a steady decline starting around the 1930s. This was possibly due to the widespread use of the name "Big Bertha" used to refer to some forms of artillery used during the First World War. It had slipped off the top 1000 names completely by the 1990s. It is definitely a name in danger of extinction. It has not seen a revival even though a trend for other names from the era of its heyday have enjoyed renewed popularity.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


A very dear friend recently sent me a real treasure of a gift. It is a baby name book that was published in 1953 with an original publication date of 1946 ("What to Name the Baby" by Evelyn Wells). I've been thumbing through it ever since and delighted to happen upon names that I've never seen before.

Bear in mind that I own or have looked at every baby name book that you would find at your big box bookseller and I have ordered some that are more off the beaten path. I've seen a lot of names. I have a book that claims to list 40,001 of the best names but in order to meet that magic numbers it includes entries like, "Diamondique" and then counts "Diamondik" as another version (and, no, the pronunciation of that second one isn't clear to me either). This book is great, actually. Its loaded with so many invented definition and crazy names it should have been sold in the fiction section. For instance, it includes the name Homer in the girls' section and lists the meaning as "tomboyish". So, by great I mean it makes me want to set my hair on fire.

Back to my book. I'm not saying that this book has your run-of-the-mill unusual names like Odiline or Mehitabel or Hedvige. I'm talking names I've NEVER seen before. And unlike a lot of unusual names that just pop up in a list of names related to a less obscure main entry (like finding Odiline under the entry "Adele") some of these names came with lengthy entries of their own. Squee!

Some examples:

Acca - the name of the foster mother of Romulus and Remus.

Azalais - a Provencal form of Alice.

Ailive - meaning "elf darling".

Alalia - "non-talkative".

Alula - a star in Ursa Major. (Sounds so charming and lilting and spacey enough to suit your average hippie but can't you just imagine it on a pink-haired diner waitress? Alula May Huggins or something?)

Araxia - for the river Araxia in Armenia.

Axah - variant of Achsah meaning "a tinkling anklet".

And that's just the A's!

I was really surprised to see the name Alyssa which I had assumed was Alyssa Milano's parents' bastardization of Elisa. Wells relates it to the flower called sweet alyssum. Huh.

Time to read the B's.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Name of the Day: Audrey

Audrey is such an accessible name that its hard to believe it started life as the far less approachable Old English name, Æðelþryð or Æthelthryth. While researching why there are two spellings given I learned that both ð and þ represent the digraph 'th' and more precisely, the voiced dental fricative version as in 'this' as opposed to the voiceless dental fricative as in 'thing'. I don't see the digraph 'th' listed in the Old English alphabet so I suspect Æthelthryth is a modern transliteration to make it readable to us today. I'm sure someone knows for sure.

Back to the name. Its meaning is 'noble strength'; 'œthel' meaning 'noble' and 'thryth' meaning, of course, 'strength' (or feel free to substitute the Old English spelling of each).

The most famous Æthelthryth was the 7th century Anglo-Saxon princess-cum-saint of the same name. By the 12th century, following the Norman invasion of 1066, the Old English names and indeed the entire language, all but vanished.
Æthelthryth became Etheldreda and was then further reduced to Audrey.

St. Audrey's end came in the form of an enormous tumor on her neck, which she took to be retribution for her sin of having once adorned herself with necklaces.
During the Middle Ages the city of Ely, England held a "St. Audrey's Fair" on her feast day. At this fair one could purchase neckerchiefs (to represent her affliction) and other items, fantastically described at as being of "exceptional shoddiness". This eventually led to the formation of the word "tawdry" as a contraction of St. Audrey.

Audrey is currently ranked 68th in the US having made a steady climb from a position in the 200s during the 1970s. I predict a continued steady climb into the top 30.