Archive for the ‘Biblical Names’ Category

Vashti — a name it seems everyone loves, but few actually use!

I’ve met more than one person who have said they set their heart on Vashti, but when it came to crunch time, settled on something else. Something less distinctive.

Why is that?

After all, Vashti’s not exactly a new creation. It’s found in the Bible.

The biblical Vashti was the name of the first wife of the Persian King Ahasuerus — better known to history as Xerxes, though it is unclear which Xerxes he is supposed to be. He is popularly identified with Xerxes I — whose known named wife was called Amestris in Greek sources.

And, actually, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Vashti and Amestris share the same source — just as Ahasuerus and Xerxes do; the one traveling from the original via Hebrew, the other by Greek.

Indeed, according to one theory, it may be that another name closely linked to Vashti’s tale also stem from the name of this queen — none other than Esther.

In the biblical Book of Esther, the story goes that Ahasuerus banised Vashti because she refused to come before him “to show her beauty to the people and nobles.”

He was “in high spirits from wine” at the time.

Reading between the lines, it was considered improper for Vashti to be at the party, and in summoning her in such as way, Ahasuerus would have dishonored her — and himself.

As king, of course, he was used to being obeyed, whether his commands were reasonable or not. He couldn’t be seen to allow her to disobey him.

So Vashti was shown the door, and Ahasuerus married Esther instead.

For standing up to her bully of a husband, Vashti is now regarded as a bit of a feminist icon, though she’s had more than her fair share of flack in past centuries. The Midrash is particularly unflattering.

Which is kind of ironic really, as it is possible that the historic Vashti and Esther were actually the same person, the two emerging from different interpretations of the real name of the wife of King Xerxes.

I’ve mentioned before that Esther might derive from Ishtar, but have only recently come across the interesting theory that both Amestris and Esther come from the Akkadian Ummu-Ishtar “Ishtar is (my) mother” or Ammu-Ishtar.

Ammu is more difficult — it may be the same as the Hammu of Hamurabi, which is thought to be an Amorite name, with (H)ammu a divine name.

That Amestris and Esther might come from either of these is perfectly plausible; and the same is true of Vashti, with the loss of the initial vowel and mutation of the “m” to a “v.”

Other theories keep it simpler, and suggest Vashti derives directly from an Old Persian word meaning “beautiful” or “best.”

Another plausible option is a derivation from the Old Persian vas “to desire.”

Like many biblical names, Vashti came into use after the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century; it appealed particularly to the Romani, and by the nineteenth century had come to be regarded as very much a Gypsy name.

Augusta Jane Evans used it in her 1869 novel Vashti.

Nowadays, its best known bearer is the English singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan, whose 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day is a cult classic.

A bit like the name Vashti!

In 2010, only 29 little girls were called Vashti in America, and less than three in Britain.

Isn’t it time this diamond of a name got to sparkle?

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She stood breast-high amid the corn,
Clasp’d by the golden light of morn,
Like the sweetheart of the sun,
Who many a glowing kiss had won.

On her cheek an autumn flush,
Deeply ripen’d;—such a blush
In the midst of brown was born,
Like red poppies grown with corn.

Round her eyes her tresses fell,
Which were blackest none could tell,
But long lashes veil’d a light,
That had else been all too bright.

There was always something about Thomas Hood’s poem “Ruth” which drew me.

For a start, unlike many an early nineteenth century love poem, it doesn’t drip with overt sentimentality.

Then there’s the fact it is permeated with agriculture, the ripe crops beneath a nurturing sun.

The image of Ruth breast-high in the field of corn was one that particularly captured my imagination — a young widow, far from home, who chose to remain in a foreign land to support her elderly mother-in-law and eke out a living to support them both by collecting fallen ears of wheat. A young widow, whose kindness and devotion is rewarded when Boaz rescues her.

But, most of all, there’s the fact Ruth was my mother’s name.

As a farmer’s daughter, my mum Ruth spent much of her childhood roaming the countryside, and the poem has always made me think of her as a girl and young woman roaming the fields.

She was also very short, so could quite easily have ended up “breast-high” or more in some crops.

And she was also widowed relatively young — in her early forties — with a dependent relative to care for; not an elderly mother-in-law, but a new baby. Me.

There was no Boaz for my mum, but we muddled through.

Ruth is often said to be the Moabite equivalent of the Hebrew re’ut “friend” — but it is just as likely to be purely Hebrew in origin, chosen to emphasize Ruth’s qualities.

Either way, its meaning was something my mum was always very proud of. She was a very sociable woman who went out of her way to be a good friend. Even though she had little herself, she didn’t begrudge helping others when she could.

There are a lot of Ruths my mum’s age — it was the 11th most popular name in America in 1931 when she was born; although it was less popular in the UK, it was still a top 50 name at the time of her birth. Now it languishes in the mid 300s in the US, and in the 400s in the UK. Unsurprising, I suppose; few names popular in the 1930s are in favor at present, but sad, all the same. But I daresay it will only be a matter of time before the name Ruth, like the biblical original, is rescued from her gleaning.

In Memory of

My Mother



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Miniature portrait of Thackeray, aged about 2, with his mother, Ann Becher. It was painted in India, where Thackeray was born.

Today marks the bicentenary of the birth of British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, best known for the enduringly popular Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, which was first published serially between 1847 and 1848 in Punch.

To mark the occasion, I thought I’d feature the name of Thackeray’s greatest character — Rebecca.

As well as one of Thackeray’s greatest creations, the feisty, clever Rebecca Sharp (generally called Becky) is probably one of literature’s greatest heroines (or rather, anti-heroines).

She is also one that has stayed most fresh; unlike many other Victorian heroines, whose heavy Victorian morals frequently start to grate for modern readers.

Thackeray didn’t, in fact, intend her to be very likeable. But despite her cynicism and social-climbing, and, at times, her ruthlessness,  Becky’s humor, and her determination to better herself — undeterred by all the hurdles placed before her — have won her many fans over the years.

But what about her name?

The original Rebecca is found in the Bible; the wife of Isaac, mother of Jacob and Esau, and auntie of Leah and Rachel.

Rebecca was first used as a given name outside the Jewish Community in the English-speaking world in the 16th Century, being the usual English form of biblical name Rebekah. It has the traditional meaning of ‘heifer’ in Hebrew, but this etymology sits on pretty shaky foundations.

The name might not actually be Hebrew at all, but come a neighboring Semitic language — though it is probably from the Semitic root r-b-q ‘to tie’ or ‘to join’, from which the Hebrew ribhqeh ‘connection’ did evolve.

More than one of those accused at Salem were called Rebecca, including Rebecca Eames, who was condemned, but reprieved before her execution was carried out, and Rebecca Nurse, who was hanged on July 19th, 1692. The latter is a prominant character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), which dramatized the events of the Salem witch hysteria, responsible for taking the lives of so many people.

Rebecca was also the ‘Christian name’ adopted by the Native American princess Pocahontas on her conversion to Christianity in 1614.

Another interesting Rebecca of note is Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), the first African American woman to become a medical doctor in the US.

Not quite twenty years before Vanity Fair, Rebecca had another prominent literary outing in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Rebecca of York is a beautiful, young Jewish healer, in love with the novel’s hero, Wilfred of Ivanhoe — he doesn’t return the love, but does at least rescue her from being burnt at the stake, after she was accussed and tried for witchcraft…

To what extent Thackeray and Scott’s Rebeccas influenced its use as a given name in the 19th Century isn’t easy to say; it was in the top 100 names in both during the 19th Century, though in decline towards the century’s end and not among either’s top 100 by the early 20th Century.

Another literary work was, however, unquestionably responsible for its return — Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which was published in 1938. It received further significant exposure when the critically acclaimed film of the book came out in 1940; staring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it was a massive box-office hit.

Rebecca was at its most popular in the US in the 1970s, and in the UK in the 1990s. The Fates that govern the popularity of names have since called its time and cut its thread, and Rebecca is currently tumbling down the baby name ranks — but no doubt it will be back again, when the arbiters of fashion decree it.

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A number of boys were called George Washington in 1776 after the great American hero of Independence.

It’s Independence Day today on the other side of the Pond, and to celebrate, I thought I’d explore the names given to babies the year that the Declaration of Independence was signed. Using the records available online at FamilySearch (a great genealogical resource provided by the Church of Latter Day Saints), I waded through over 1000 records to take a snapshot of what newly independent Americans were naming their offspring in 1776. Unsurprisingly, the commonest names were John, Joseph, William and James for boys, and Elizabeth, Mary, Sarah, Hannah and Ann(e) for girls — but what was surprising was that  these names didn’t dominate quite as much as expected. It turns out, there was a lot of variety in naming practices in America in 1776.

There were some absolute gems — names which might have just stepped out of the pages of Charles Dickens — or even Harry Potter. Abigail Root, Alpheus Dodge, Amaziah Rice, Betsey Boon, Eliphalet Whittlesey, Gamaliel Pardee, Hephzibah Crouch, Howel Stocking, Ichabod Tuttle, Olive Doolittle, Permilia Pettingale, Polly Griswold, Sabrina Craft, Tryphena Blodgett and Zadock Steel would all have been perfectly at home on a shopping trip up Diagon Alley…

Most of the names fell into distinct categories (I have standardized spellings):

  • Classic ‘English’ names — names which had gone over with the first settlers, having been in use for centuries back in Blighty before that: Agnes, Alice, Allen, Amy, Arnold, Barbara, Catherine, Charles, Christopher, Dorothy, Edmund, Edward, Frances, Francis, George, Gilbert, Giles, Henry, Justin, Lawrence, Leonard, Lucy, Mabel, Margaret, Margery, Martin, Miles, Millisent, Nicholas, Olive, Oliver, Parnel, Ralph, Richard, Robert, Roderick, Roger, Rosie, Stephen, Sybil,  Ursula, Walter.
  • Pet-names — Alison, Betsey/Betsy, Betty, Cate, Dilly, Dolly, Fanny, Katy, Lina, Molly, Nancy, Patty, Polly, Sally. Some people think that using short or pet-forms of names as given names in their own right is a new phenomenon – but it’s not, as this list shows; Alison was first used independently of Alice in the Middle Ages.
  • Biblical names — probably the largest category. As well as the familiar Bible names, the late 18th Century Americans were just as cheerfully trawling through the dustiest corners of the Old Testament to find obscure names for their children as they do today. All of these featured, a great many of them more than once. Aaron, Abel, Abiah/Abijah, Abiel, Abigail, Abner, Abraham, Abram, Achsah, Adonijah, Amasa, Amaziah, Amos, Andrew, Ard, Ariel, Asa, Asahel/Asael, Asaph, Asenath, Azariah, Azubah, Barnabas, Bathsheba, Benajah, Benjamin, Benoni, Beriah, Bernice, Beulah, Bithiah/Bethiah, Caleb, Cyrenius, Cyrus, Dan, Daniel, David, Deborah, Dorcas, Ebenezer, Eleazar, Eli, Eliab, Eliakim, Elias/Elijah, Eliasaph, Eliel, Elihu, Eliphalet, Elisha, Elizur, Elkanah, Enos, Epaphras, Ephraim, Erastus, Esther, Eunice, Ezra, Festus, Gad, Gamaliel, Gershom, Gideon, Hephzibah, Hezekiah, Hiel, Hiram, Huldah, Ichabod, Isaac, Isaiah, Israel, Ithiel, Jabez, Jacob, Jared, Jason, Jedediah, Jehiel, Jemima, Jephthah, Jerah, Jeremiah, Jeremy, Jerusha, Jesse, Joanna, Job, Joel, Jonathan, Josiah, Judith, Julius, Justus, Keturah,Kezia, Lemuel, Levi, Lois, Lot, Lucius, Lydia, Mahalah, Malachi, Marah, Marcus, Martha, Mehetabel, Merab, Micah, Michael, Miriam, Moses, Naomi, Nathan, Nathaniel, Nehemiah, Noadiah, Noah, Obadiah, Oren, Orpha, Ozias, Pelatiah, Persis, Philetus, Phineas/Phinehas, Phoebe, Rachel, Rebecca, Reuben, Reumah, Reuel, Rhoda, Ruah, Rufus, Ruhamah, Ruth, Salah, Samuel, Sapphira, Selah, Seth, Shadrack, Shubael, Silas, Simeon, Simon, Solomon, Susannah, Tabitha, Talitha-cumi, Tamar, Thaddeus, Thomas, Timothy, Tryphena, Vaniah, Zachariah, Zadok, Zebulon, Zelotes, Zenas, Zeruiah. Phew!
  • Puritan names — Charity, Deliverance, Desire, Freegrace, Freelove, Friend, Grace, Mercy, Patience, Prudence, Relief, Submit, Temperance, Thankful. Vine.
  • Names from the Classical World — Aeneas, Alethea, Alpheus, Augustus, Aurelia, Chloe, Cynthia, Darius, Doris, Drusilla, Flora, Irene, Juliana, Lavinia, Lucretia, Minerva, Parthenia, Penelope, Philo, Philomela, Phyllis, Polyxena, Roxana, Selina, Silvia, Sophia, Statira, Thalia, Urania, Zeno. A number of the names in the biblical list are also of Greek or Roman origin, but in most cases, their use in 18th Century was due to their appearance in the Bible – which is why they’re on that list, not this.
  • Names from literature — Clarinda, Clarissa, Fidelia, Horatio, Lorinda, Lucinda, Matilda, Miranda, Orinda, Sabrina, Violetta.
  • 18th Century fashionistas  — Ada, Amelia, Anna, Charlotte, Frederick, Harriet, Matilda, Theodosia.  Most of these were actually in existence before the 18th C, but it was in this century when they came into their element.
    Surnames – Alvan, Arbus, Avery, Bemsley, Bradford, Briggs, Buckley, Calvin, Chauncey, Chester, Church, Clark, Clarry, Denison, Dudley, Elvin, Grant, Gordon, Halsey, Hazard, Howard, Howel, Hubbard, Johnson, Leaman, Lewis, Lothrop, Montgomery, Moore, Palmer, Payson, Percy, Prentice, Roswell, Royal, Rue, Russell, Salmon, Selden, Sheldon, Sterling, Wait, Ward, Warren, Warriner, Wells, Willis, Wilson, Woodruff. A pet bugbear of many people today is the use of surnames as first names – but it is an old practice, as these names demonstrate.
  • Children of the Revolution — George Washington, Freedom, Independence, Liberty, Joy — and Lament? Lament may belong in the Puritan category, but Little Lament Hall was born on July 12, and I can’t help wondering whether his parents had not been quite so pleased about the Declaration! Perhaps Rue belongs here too!
  • Unique names — these gems and marvels may be scribal errors rather than genuine names, as I have not been able to verify them.  Ammarilla, Ammedilla, Ason, Azara, Bani, Barna, Beraliel, Clarine, Cylinda, Darkis, Dency, Elafan, Elazander, Etrania, Farazina, Finance, Heman/Himan, Hubbil, Ketchell, Lodamia, Lorain, Lowly/Lowley, Luanna, Lurannah, Lurany, Milete, Orange, Orra, Permilia, Philena, Prua, Rena, Sabin, Sabra, Salem, Saniel, Sule, Susa, Vienna, Welthy, Willeborough, Willibee, Zebriah.

And what about children actually born on the 4th July 1776? Not that many actually. Bethiah Gray, Charles Loomis, Gideon Cruttenden, Ruah Weed,  Selah Scovill – and (how could there not be?) Independence Booth!

Happy Independence Day!

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