Wednesday, September 28

Olympic Names

One of my favorite sources for new names has been the list of athletes who competed in the last summer Olympics. It was on the official Olympic website, organized alphabetically with notes as to the gender and country of origin for each person. When I found it, I almost cried. I saved the list immediately, typing each name separately because I could not bring myself to copy + paste such a holy document. 
It reads like a roster of customers waiting in line at the global DMV — this is not your average set of boring bourgie birth announcements. The only common thread is that each person is, apparently, freakishly good at some sporty-type thing. With no regard to economic or social status, these names come from everywhere. I love this list — it never fails to amuse me, and it has taught me a lot. It’s because of this list that I can talk for hours about naming trends in Ghana or Puerto Rico. (I mean, in theory. That conversation has never actually happened, except in my own head.)
Here are some jewels to fit any aesthetic —

Ardo (Estonia)
Catello (Italy)
Luksa (Croatia)
Metodi (Bulgaria)
Osmai (Cuba)
Quiarol (Honduras)
Sanan (Thailand)
Siarhei (Belarus)
Spyridon (Greece)

Clementina (Seychelles)
Georgeta (Romania)
Iskra (Bulgaria)
Lailatou (Niger)
Naoaki (Japan)
Omnia (Egypt)
Phara (France)
Silulu (American Samoa)
Tassadit (Algeria)
Virginie (France)
Zita (Hungary)

Wednesday, September 21

a Name, a Poem

Recently I came across a collection of poetry called A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Nowedited by poets Willis and Aliki Barnstone. (They are father and daughter.)
Aliki is the name of a village on the Greek island of Paros. Willis Barnstone began his teaching career in Greece and has translated the works of ancient Greek poets and philosophers — I wonder if that’s where he found the inspiration for his daughter’s name.
The book is full of wonderful poems and wonderful names. Here are some standouts —
Beatritz — I love this unusual form, and that extra “T”
Claude — who says unisex names are automatically bad? I like both Cecil and Claude on girls
Gloria — ready for a comeback, I think
Maria Amália 

Tuesday, September 20

Panning for Name Gold: 1890

A decade has passed since my last uncommon names post — what’s new in names? For the most part, not much. The lists for 1880 and 1980 are very similar. Here are ten that stood out from the beginning of the Gay Nineties.
Ignatius — a family name from ancient Rome, popular with writerssaints, and Cate Blanchetts (her youngest son is Ignatius Martin). Call him Iggy or Nate and it becomes less imposing. Use one of the many variants and it can suit just about any boy — there’s Basque Iñaki, French Ignace, short and sweet Slovenian Nace, and Spanish Ignacio
Sampson — I personally prefer Samson, which seems to be the older spelling, but there’s something about that middle “P” that makes Sampson feel a little more complete and down-to-earth. This Biblical name means “sun” and is an interesting alternative to the classic, but very common, Samuel
Sumner — occupational surnames make for some very trendy baby names, but Sumner is one I haven’t seen used. It sounds kind of humbly Southern, doesn’t it, and escapes being too pretentious
Zeno — totally unlike good old front-porch-sitting Sumner, Zeno goes right to the top (it’s derived from the name Zeus). It’s the name of a number of philosophers — perhaps most closely associated with Stoicism — and has ties to astrology and quantum mechanics
Worth — virtue names are usually reserved for girls, so I think Worth is … worth looking at. “Useful or important to the world” isn’t too onerous a meaning, and I could see it paired with a classic (think William or George) or something more hip
Clemence — Clémence is in France’s top 30, and it’s the name of an up-and-coming young actress. These things spell “popularity rise” to me, though I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say Clemence won’t go shooting up the US charts anytime soon. It’s also a virtue name, meaning “merciful,” or “gentle,” and variant Clemency is lyrical and sweet
Magnolia — popular Lily can’t hold a candle to dark and mysterious Magnolia. It’s not just a pretty floral name — the magnolia tree is a notoriously tough cookie. Also, I have a tree name, therefore, tree names are the best
Persis — though its meaning is unremarkable (from a Greek word meaning “Persian woman”) I can’t help but be drawn to its fluid, unusual sound
Portia — well, it means “pig,” and please, for chrissakes, don’t spell it Porsche, but Shakespeare thought it was cool enough, and so did the person who got the plum job of naming Uranus’ moons. (Uranus is a bit of a moon hog, with 27 of the things, and many of them have nice names. OberonFerdinandCressida and Mab, to name a few)
Rosamond — one of the lesser-known Rose variants, Rosamond’s double “O”s give it personality, and it sounds old in that “Iris and Maude” way that many forefront-namers dig these days. The French spelling — Rosemonde — is also very nice

Monday, September 19

let's talk about: Nina

Nina’s been on my mind lately. Maybe because, like Otto, it’s a pleasing word to say. Nina skips off the tongue — and, because it’s two syllables long and ends in the letter “A,” — fits right in with a lot of popular girl names. But Nina won’t get lost in the soft-sound sea of Ellas, Avas, Emmas and Lolas. Nina stands out. Catapulted with oomph by that long “E” sound, Nina cuts a clear, sophisticated path across the pastel hills of Trendy-land. 
In the US, Nina peaked in popularity way back in the 1880s, though it’s been a fairly constant figure on the charts ever since. That’s good to know if you’re looking for a name that doesn’t seem dated. It’s got tons of fabulous history: the ancient city of Nineveh was named for a Nina — a goddess of fertility found in Assyrian and Babylonian mythology, who is identical to Ishtar, and represented by a fish inside a house. Come on, that’s crazy.
Nina is cross-cultural. It means “fire,” in Quechua, and is still frequently used throughout Europe, where it is actually on the upswing in Belgium and France. A look at Wikipedia’s list of famous Ninas is a veritable treasure trove of interesting women. Russian snipers! American botanists! Dutch sex workers! What more could you ask for — Nina is clearly a name that works well for all types of personalities.
If Nina seems like too much of a nickname to you (and it does mean “little girl,” in Spanish) try a longer form, like lyrical Annina, or Italian names containing the “-nina” element, like Antonina or Giannina. I’m partial to French forms NinetteNinon and Ninou, which either sound like aliens, or faeries in a Shakespeare play. For lovers of the very obscure, try Nino, the name of a 4th-century saint (scarily depicted above). And for boys, there’s Ninos, a name from ancient Greece.

Panning for Name Gold: 1880

For those of you not in the know, the Social Security Administration (or as Rick Perry likes to call it, the Ponzi-Scheme Fun-Time Show) puts out a list of the most popularly-used baby names in the United States each year. The list is usually released around Mother’s Day, because they do it as a special gift, just for me.
The SSA list is a comprehensive overview of the top 1,000 names used for girls and boys — complete with the number of times a name is actually used (the #1 names, which you should definitely know, are Jacob and Isabella, each used on about 20,000 babies in 2010). The website is a place where name fiends can lose themselves for hours. (However, if you’re looking for information on middle name popularity, you won’t find it. If someone from the Administration is reading this, I will gladly sift through the data for you and take care of everything. I will do this all for free, even though I really have lots of other stuff I should be doing, like raising my daughter and writing unpublished novels. Thank you.)
Recently, in a genius move, the SSA made available for PDF-download lists of all the baby names used more than five times for every year since 1880. Now, instead of merely the top 1,000, you can search through pages and pages of every name used more than five times, and learn everything there is to learn about name trends in the United States. Remain calm!
In the dregs of these totally bizarre, eclectic lists are some really wicked names. Names that have never been popular, will probably never be popular, and are by all accounts strange one-off naming moments. These names have a special place in my heart. They come with auras, they beg for answers and explanation — they are cool. 
Here on Eponymia, I’ll be looking at one list from each decade, and choosing ten (5 girls, 5 boys) names that were used less than 10 times, to highlight and talk about. Just to put them out there and hope they stick, because 20,000 children named after characters in Twilight is more than enough.
Here are my picks from 1880, when the President’s name was Rutherford 
Orson — means “bear cub” and has a nice old-Hollywood feel, thanks to Orson Welles
Philo — “to love,” is a nice meaning for a boy. It ends in “O,” which makes it sound modern and fresh, and it could be a nice way to honor a Philip
Theron — if you think giving your son a name that means “to love,” will turn him gay, you’ll be glad to know that Theron means “hunter.” It also sounds familiar thanks to serious actress Charlize Theron
Urban — Pope alert! You can guess what Urban means. “U” is an under-used letter in first names, and the “N” ending has always been popular for boys
Winston — Winston’s hot in Britain right now, and has a great, strange meaning — “joy stone.” Depending on your proclivities you can think of Churchill, or George Orwell’s poor Winston Smith
Isadora — Isabella only has a bunch of boring queens, but Isadora (or even better, Isidora) was a saint. An Egyptian hermitess saint
Leonie — from Leo, so it means “lion.” Leonie is currently the #3 girl’s name in Austria and is in France’s top 50 (as Léonie)
Mahala — enough with the McKayla already. Here’s a lesser-known Biblical name for those who love soft sounds and layered meaning
Sula — personally, I like the name Ursula, but for those who’ve had it corrupted by Disney sea witches, just chop off the front and you have a breezy standout girl name
Zoa — Zoa’s the sharpest name on this list, and should appeal to nature lovers (it’s a mountain in Canada), anthropology lovers (it’s the name of a tribe of people who live in the Amazonian rainforest) and literature buffs alike (an unfinished book by William Blake has the title The Four Zoas)

Friday, September 16

let's talk about: Otto

Otto is a well-seasoned name, a name with history (and a lot of it is German history, so it can get kind of dark) and heft. Otto conveys strength and power — it means “wealth,” or “fortune” — yet it doesn’t seem musty or cumbersome.
Otto is saved by its simplicity. It’s lovely to look at — I’ve always been a sucker for symmetry — and is just plain fun to say.
If Otto isn’t your thing, there are lots and lots of great variants. For boys, there’s a French twist, Eudes, the name of a saint and a king. There’s even-simpler Udo, which gives off a totally different vibe. And for girls, there are endless, pretty, very unusual forms. Odette and Odile, names made famous by Swan Lake, share Otto’s Germanic root. The Spanish feminine form is the striking Odalys. And charming Ottilie is enjoying a quiet resurgence in modern British birth announcements.

hello Eponymia

Names can tell stories, if you let them. They are just words— they can can make a language.
If you spend a lot of time obsessing over thinking about names, they begin to take on shapes of their own. Letters and sounds put together become little universes full of meaning. As human beings, we are compelled to call ourselves something, to name the things around us. It’s part of how we connect to the world and to each other.
So this is Eponymia, a place where I will talk about names as much as I damn well please.
Because they're important.