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sabine women detailLast week we had names from Victoria which were used less than ten times in 2012. Those names are uncommon – but what if you wanted something even rarer? These are names which don’t appear even once in the Victorian data from last year, and have never charted in Australia. However, they are not strange or obscure, and all of them can be found in Australian historical records.

Angharad

Angharad is an Old Welsh name meaning “greatly loved”. It was reasonably common in medieval times, and there are several Angharads in Welsh history. In Welsh mythology, Angharad Golden-Hand is the lover of Peredur, one of King Arthur’s knights. Angharad Morgan is a main character in How Green Was My Valley, and in the film version was played by Maureen O’Hara. Actress Angharad Rees became well known in the 1970s for playing the role of Demelza in the TV series Poldark. Lots of famous Angharads, yet I could find only one woman named Angharad in Australian records. The pronunciation, ang-HAH-rad, may have caused some concern. This is a strong and unusual name with a lovely meaning. It would definitely stand out.

Beatrix

Beatrix is based on the name Viatrix, the feminine form of the Latin name Viator, meaning “voyager, traveller”. Early on, the spelling was altered to associate it with the Latin word beatus, meaning “blessed”, and it was common amongst early Christians. Some baby name books sandwich these two meanings together and interpret it as “blessed traveller”. Saint Beatrix was an early Roman martyr; according to legend, she was strangled by her servants. The name became less common in England after the Middle Ages, but was revived in the 19th century. One of the most famous people with this name is Beatrix Potter, the children’s writer and illustrator, who gave us such delightful characters as Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, Squirrel Nutkin and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. As well as these talents, she was also a scientific researcher, conservationist, farmer, and sheep breeder. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands helps give this name a royal touch, and a famous literary character is Beatrix “Trixie” Belden, girl detective. To me, this charming name seems spunkier and more eccentric than her sister Beatrice.

Cressida

In Greek mythology, Chryseis was the daughter of a Trojan priest named Chryses, and she was captured by the Greek champion Agamemnon as part of the spoils of war; he refused to give her back even after being asked nicely. Chryseis’ dad prayed like blazes to the god Apollo, who obligingly sent a plague through the Greek soldiers until Chryseis was returned. A later legend says that she bore Agamemnon a son. Her name given in the Iliad simply means “daughter of Chryses”; appropriately for a priest of Apollo, Chryses’ name means “golden”, perhaps in reference to sunlight. Some writers say Chryseis’ real name was Astynome, meaning “possessor of the city”. When medieval authors retold the tale of the Trojan War, this story had a complete rewrite. Chryseis became Cressida (KRES-ih-duh), and one corner of a tragic love triangle; she is made the epitome of the false woman and the whore. Some authors were sympathetic to Cressida’s plight, and in Shakespeare’s version, Cressida is complex, highly intelligent and witty. A famous Australian with this name is the artist Cressida Campbell. I find this literary name quite bewitching.

Emmeline

Emmeline is the Old French form of the Germanic name Amelina, based on the word for “work”; it is therefore related to the name Amelia, and not to Emily. The name was introduced to Britain by the Normans, and many people prefer to give it a slightly French pronunciation as EM-uh-leen, while others seek to Anglicise the way it is said as EM-uh-line (like Caroline). My experience is that the British tend to say leen, Americans tend to say line, and Australians have a bob each way and can usually cope with either. There were several prominent suffragists named Emmeline, including Emmeline Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Wells. Australia mountaineer Emmeline Du Faur was the first woman to climb Mount Cook (in record time), and the first person to climb several peaks – always dressed in a skirt. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was a keen hiker and woodcrafter, and to me the name Emmeline sounds vigorous, healthy, and practical. Emmeline has a solid history of use in Australia, being commonly found in old records, and today its nickname Emmie means it fits in with popular names such as Emily, Emma and Emmerson.

Isadora

Isadora is a variant of the name Isidora, the feminine form of Isidore, from the Greek for “gift of Isis”; the Egyptian goddess Isis was worshipped widely in the ancient world, and she was also important to the Greeks and Romans. Saint Isidora was a 4th century Egyptian nun, considered to be a “holy fool”, and treated with contempt by the other nuns for her eccentric ways, such as wearing a dirty dishrag on her head instead of a veil, and eating only leftovers instead of proper meals. When a visiting saint came to the nunnery, he immediately picked out Isidora as the only person holier than himself; upset by the praise and attention, Isidora ran away into the desert to be a hermit, and nothing more is known of her. The most famous Isadora is the American dancer Isadora Duncan, who developed her own unique style of dance, based on the natural movements of the human body. Like the saint, she was considered eccentric and radical, and danced to the beat of her own drum. Isadora is a beautiful, glamorous and individualistic name!

Lavender

Lavender has been used as a personal name since the 17th century, and was given to both sexes. It may have originally been derived from the surname, which is Norman-French and based on the word lavandier, referring to a worker in the wool industry who washed the raw wool (this is an occupation that both men and women had). Even in the middle of the 20th century, you can still find boys named Lavender. By now, however, it is almost entirely thought of as a girl’s name, and considered to be from the flower. The flower name comes from the Old French lavendre, possibly from the Latin for “blue-coloured”, lividius, but also influenced by lavare, meaning “wash”, because lavender was used in washing clothes. Lavender is often used to scent soaps and beauty products, and has been used as a relaxation aid for thousands of years. The colour lavender is associated with sensuality and decadence, and at one time, was considered symbolic of homosexuality. Like Rose, this is a pretty old-fashioned flower name that is more complex that it first appears.

Sabine

Sabine is a French and German form of Sabina, the feminine form of the Latin name Sabinus, meaning “Sabine”. The Sabines were an Italian tribe who inhabited the region where the city of Rome stands today, and some of them fought against Rome for their independence. According to legend, the Romans abducted Sabine women to populate the city of Rome; the war between the Romans and Sabines ended when the women threw themselves and their children between the armies of their fathers and those of their husbands. The history behind the legend is that the conquered Sabines assimilated with the Romans, beginning a new line of inheritance. Many of the noble Roman families traced their ancestry to Sabine origins, and at least some of the deities and rituals of Rome came from the Sabines. The Sabines were said to have taken their name from the hero Sabus, who was worshipped as a deity. Although it is too long ago to be sure, one theory is that the tribal name Sabine meant “us, ourselves, our own people”. You can either say this name the French way, sa-BEEN, or the German way, za-BEE-nuh; most English-speakers use the French pronunciation. There is at least one famous man named Sabine – the writer Sabine Baring-Gould, whose name was after the surname (derived from the personal name). You can find both men and women named Sabine in Australian records. Sabine is smooth and sophisticated, but comes with a cute nickname – Bean.

Theodora

Theodora is the feminine form of the Greek name Theodoros, meaning “gift of God”. The name pre-dates Christianity, but its meaning appealed to early Christians, and there are a few saints with this name. One of them was Saint Theodora, who as punishment for her pious celibacy, was dragged into a brothel. Her first “customer” was a Christian man, who had came to save her; they were both martyred, but their virtue remained intact. This story is probably fictional, and may have been inspired by sacred prostitution, of which Christians obviously disapproved. An Eastern Orthodox Saint Theodora disguised herself as a man and joined a monastery. Her identity as a woman was only discovered after her death. The name was a very popular one for Byzantine empresses, and Theodora I is also regarded as a saint. A Roman Theodora was a senator, and supposedly the lover of one of the early popes. She was harshly condemned for daring to “exercise power like a man”. The hussy! The image you get from these historical Theodoras is of very strong, independent, determined women – which might explain why Disney has chosen this name for the Wicked Witch of the West in Oz: The Great and Powerful. Pop star Robbie William welcomed a daughter named Theodora Rose last year, called Teddy; he wanted a dignified full name for the cuddly nickname, and Theodora fit the bill perfectly.

Verity

Verity is an English word meaning “truth”, especially in regard to religious truth or doctrine. It has been used as a personal name since the 17th century, and would have been given as a virtue name by the Puritans. However, it was most likely also given in honour of the surname, for births of Veritys in Yorkshire are suggestive, given that the Verity family is a prominent one in that county. The surname is Anglo-Norman, and has the same meaning as the personal name. Originally, Verity was a unisex name, and in early records is given equally to boys and girls. The first Verity I can find born in the United States was a boy, and his family were Puritans in Massachusetts. You can find the name Verity given to both sexes in Australian records, but only as a middle name for boys, and it has never been very common here. Famous Australian women named Verity include the politicians Verity Barton and Verity Firth, the ABC presenter Verity James, and the actress Verity Hunt-Ballard, who played Mary Poppins in the Australian version of the musical. This is a crisp, clean name which sounds intelligent and upper-class to me.

Zia

Zia is a variant of the Arabic name Ziya, meaning “light, shine, splendour” – more specifically, it refers to light which shines by its own illumination, and is connected to the sun and sunlight. Traditionally, Zia is a male name, but Arabic baby name sites usually list it as female, and the name charts in France only for girls. There are quite a few people called Zia in Australian records, and they are not all Arabic men. There are women called Zia from different cultures, including Italian, where Zia may be short for a name such as Annunzia (zia means “aunt” in Italian, but this doesn’t seem to have been a hindrance to its use by Italians). Most women called Zia in the records seem to be of British descent, and I’m guessing either it was seen as a short form of other names, or parents just liked the sound of it. I can imagine parents today also liking the sound of it, because it is so similar to popular names such as Zara and Mia – indeed, it almost seems like a cross between these names. This is a zippy name which sounds a bit different, but won’t seem out of place in the playground.

POLL RESULT: People’s favourite names were Beatrix, Emmeline, and Isadora, and their least favourite were Lavender, Zia, and Angharad.

(Picture shows a detail from The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799) by Jacques-Louis David)

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