Name in the News
The 85th Academy Awards ceremony was held on February 24, and as with every year at this time, there was intense speculation in the Australian media as to whether any Australians would manage to win an Oscar.
One who was under consideration was actress Naomi Watts, who was born in England and came to Australia as a teenager, where she attended high school in Sydney (Nicole Kidman was one of her classmates). Her first acting jobs were in Australia, gaining experience in film and television. In the 1990s she moved to Los Angeles to continue her career; her big break came when she was chosen as the star of Mulholland Drive.
This year, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, for her role of Maria Bennett in The Impossible. She lost to Jennifer Lawrence, but has won several other awards for the film, as well as being judged one of the best-dressed on the red carpet at the Oscars.
Naomi is a Hebrew name interpreted as “pleasant, agreeable, sweet”. In the Old Testament, Naomi is a central character in The Book of Ruth, and despite the lovely meaning of her name, things went so wretchedly for her that she told others to call her Mara, meaning “bitterness”.
Because of a famine in Judea, Naomi and her family travelled to the land of Moab, where her husband and both her sons died, leaving her alone with her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth. Although her daughters-in-law were foreigners and pagans, they did not desert Naomi, and when she told them she was going back to her own people at Bethlehem, both girls offered to accompany her.
Naomi managed to convince Orpah that she should return to her family and her own customs, but Ruth famously says:
Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.
Naomi must have been a pretty wonderful mother-in-law to have evoked such love and loyalty. As mother-in-laws tend to get a bad rap, she really stands out as something special.
When Naomi returned to Bethlehem with Ruth (the famine was over by then), both of them were destitute, and poverty and misery had changed Naomi’s appearance so much that she was barely recognisable; no wonder that she felt she had been treated bitterly and deserved a bitter name.
However, she made lemonade from the lemons life had given her. She arranged for one of her husband’s relatives to marry Ruth, and after the happy couple had a child, she became the little boy’s nanny, caring for him as devotedly as if he had been her own son. I hope the rest of her life was as pleasant as her name.
Naomi is a Japanese name too, most frequently translated as “honest and beautiful” or “beautiful above all”. It is said differently to the Hebrew name, for while we generally pronounce Naomi as nay-OH-mee, the Japanese name is said something like NOW-mee. Although it is a unisex name, it seems to be much more common as a female name in Japan. You will often see Naomi suggested as a cross-cultural baby name for couples where one person is Japanese and the other from an English-speaking country.
Naomi is a classic girl’s name in Australia which has never left the charts. In rare use in the 1900s, it reached the Top 100 in the 1970s, and peaked in the 1980s at #67. It left the Top 100 in the early 2000s, and since then has been up and down the popularity charts in the 100s – most recently up, when it reached #152 in 2011.
As Naomi peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, it would be easy to dismiss it as a “mum” name. However, it never reached the Top 50, and is still in the 100s; it hasn’t been lower than the 100s since the 1950s. I think it manages to avoid being dated by never becoming highly popular, nor uncommon, so it seems very usable. I feel as if this name could belong to someone of almost any age group.
Despite being a familiar name, Naomi still seems slightly unusual, even exotic. It doesn’t sound like other Old Testament girls’ names which have reached the Top 100, like Deborah, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca or Hannah. These seem solid and homely, perhaps to some ears, even stodgy. If you had never heard the name Naomi before, I wonder if you would guess it to be a name from the Bible? I might have picked it as Polynesian or Native American, if I didn’t know otherwise.
Naomi is a classic name with a distinctive sound and even a distinctive narrative, for the Old Testament Naomi has a Bible story quite unlike other Biblical heroines. I think this is a great choice of baby name for someone who wants something slightly different, yet not at all obscure.
Thank you to Brooke for suggesting Naomi as a featured name.
Naomi received an excellent approval rating of 84%, making it one of the best-liked names of the year. The name Naomi was seen as beautiful and distinctive (24%), still suitable as a baby name (17%), a good cross-cultural choice (15%), having an inspiring Bible story (15%), and a pretty classic (13%). However, 9% were put off by the fact that the name is “I moan” backwards. Nobody thought the Bible story of Naomi was depressing.
(Picture shows Naomi Watts at the 2013 Oscars)