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This blog post was first published on July 22 2012, and substantially revised and re-posted on May 4 2016.

This Friday, July 27, it is Schools Tree Day. I always think this is a great way to start off the Spring Term, as it gets students out of the classroom and connecting with nature. This year there will be an emphasis on programs where children plant and care for trees in public bushland, teaching them about the environment and community responsibility.

National Tree Day (on Sunday July 29), and its “junior partner”, Schools Tree Day, are Australia’s biggest tree-planting events. National Tree Day was co-founded by pop singer Olivia Newton-John and Australian environmental group Planet Ark in 1996; since then more than 3.8 million people have planted over 22 million trees and shrubs.

Olivia Newton-John is an ambassador to the United Nations Environmental Program, and has won awards for her efforts on behalf of the environment from the Environmental Media Association and the Rainforest Alliance. This year she was named one of Australia’s Living Treasures by the National Trust. In honour of Ms Newton-John’s achievements and charity work, I am taking a closer look at her first name.

Name Information
Olivia is a name invented by William Shakespeare for his play Twelfth Night. It is generally believed that Shakespeare based it on the Latin name Oliva, meaning “olive” and pronounced oh-LEEV-ah.

Oliva of Brescia was a Roman saint martyred in the 2nd century. Interestingly, the saint is now often known as Saint Olivia, to distinguish her from a legendary saint from the 9th century called Oliva of Palermo, and known as Blessed Olive.

Blessed Olive was a beautiful thirteen year old girl of noble family who was kidnapped by Muslims and martyred by them after the usual imprisonment and torture. It’s clearly a piece of propaganda, but she is still a patron saint of music. Confusingly, sometimes she is also known as Saint Olivia, to distinguish her from Saint Oliva of Brescia.

Shakespeare chose the name Olivia for a beautiful countess of Illyria, an ancient land in the Balkans on the Adriatic Coast, where Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania are now. As its name suggests, Twelfth Night was written as an entertainment for the end of the Christmas season; its first performance was after Candlemas in 1602.

The eve of Epiphany was supposed to be a time when all the usual rules were turned topsy-turvy, so it is not surprising that cross-dressing plays a big part in the plot. The countess Olivia falls in love with a woman named Viola (an anagram of Oliva, while Olivia is an anagram of I, Viola) believing her to be a man named Cesario. The joke in Shakespeare’s day, when only males were permitted on stage, was that the role of Viola was played by a boy pretending to be a woman pretending to be man.

Olivia is such a stunning beauty that Viola’s twin brother Sebastian marries her virtually on sight, in an almost dreamlike state, while she thinks he is “Cesario”. They both marry under false pretences, but it is less illegal than Olivia marrying Viola. It’s a comedy, so everything works out.

The name Olivia was too good not be used by other writers, so a character named Olivia is in William Wycherley’s 1676 play The Plain Dealer, cleverly utilising a similar plot to Twelfth Night. In Oliver Goldsmith’s 1766 novel The Vicar of Wakefield, Olivia is the vicar’s strikingly beautiful daughter. In an impetuous rush of passion, she is tricked into a fake marriage with a womanising squire; luckily, it turns out the squire himself was tricked and the marriage is real.

A real marriage to an evil womaniser doesn’t sound like much of a happy ending for Olivia, but it’s happier than not being married at all, it seems. Arresting beauty and dodgy weddings seem the hallmark of the literary Olivia.

Olivia has been in use as an English name since the 17th century, and became more common in the 19th. An early famous namesake was the English socialite Olivia Devenish, who married Thomas Raffles, the vice-governor of Java.

Olivia Miss Newton-John emigrated to Australia from Britain in the 1950s, and during the 1960s was a regular on Australian radio and television before becoming a successful country-pop singer overseas. The name Olivia first appeared on the Top 100 in 1978 at #64, the same year that Olivia starred as Sandy in the hit musical film Grease.

The name Olivia was only on the Top 100 sporadically in the 1980s, never getting any higher than its initial position (Newton-John’s “sexy” image in this decade probably wasn’t a help). It began rising in the 1990s after Olivia’s career quietened down and she put away the spandex, shooting up to #46 in 1990. By 1998 it was in the Top 10 at #5, and it peaked at #1 in 2005, and then again in 2014.

Currently Olivia is #2 nationally, #2 in New South Wales, #1 in Victoria, #2 in Queensland, #3 in South Australia, #1 in Western Australia, #26 in Tasmania, #6 in the Northern Territory, and #4 in the Australian Capital Territory.

In the US, the name Olivia has charted consistently in the Top 1000 since the 19th century, rarely leaving the Top 500. It has been in the Top 100 since the 1990s, and is currently at its peak position of #2. In the UK it has been in the Top 100 since the 1990s, and peaked at #1 in 2008-2010. It is currently #2. Olivia is also #2 in New Zealand, and is popular across the English-speaking world as well as East and West Europe, and Scandinavia. Olivia is a name that travels very well.

Coincidentally or not, the rise and stability of Olivia looks similar to the trajectory of the name Oliver, which is now at #1 – in fact, the two names were #1 together in 2014. Olivia’s success may have helped her twin sister Olive rise through the ranks, for this retro charmer began zooming up the charts in the 2000s, and is now in the Top 100.

Other famous namesakes include Hollywood star Olivia de Havilland; author Olivia Manning; George Harrison’s widow, Olivia Harrison; and actresses Olivia Wilde and Olivia Williams. Although there are many fictional Olivias, one of the most famous is the adorable pig from the children’s book and TV series, named after the author’s niece (I’ve noticed many baby Olivias seem to get toy pigs as gifts).

Lovely Olivia has become one of our modern classics, currently at the peak of its success and still stable after 17 years in the Top 10. I think, like that other Shakespearean coinage Jessica, it will be with us for some time to come.

Olivia scored an approval rating of 89%, making it the most popular girl’s name of 2012 in this category. 35% of people thought the name Olivia was okay, while only 4% hated it.

(Picture shows old olive trees in Albania).