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531523_10151298153817261_581124430_nAmerican chat show host, Ellen DeGeneres, was in Australia this week. She follows in the footsteps of Oprah Winfrey, another American chat show host who brought her show to Australia, in 2010. However, while Oprah managed to get around quite a bit, Ellen (who was recovering from ‘flu), just popped in to Sydney and Melbourne.

She did seem to take a bit of a shine to Melbourne, saying it reminded her of Boston and New Orleans, and even said that it was possible she and Portia would live there one day. Ellen is practically an Australian-in-law, because her wife, model and actress Portia de Rossi, is from Australia.

Portia was born Amanda Lee Rogers in Geelong. She changed her name as a teenager to sound more exotic and interesting – Portia is after the heroine of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and de Rossi is an Italian surname, which probably means “red” (like Russell).

Portia de Rossi is the name of the mother of famous Italian poet Torquato Tasso, but I’m not sure whether the young Amanda Rogers was aware of that. Since her marriage, Portia has legally changed her name to Portia Lee James DeGeneres. I don’t know where the James comes from.

The name Ellen is a medieval form of Helen, making it the English equivalent of Elaine. Ellen was a fairly common name in the Middle Ages, and features in the English fairy tale Childe Rowland, where Burd Ellen is Rowland’s sister, who must be rescued from Elfland. Childe and Burd don’t mean how they sound – childe was a title given to the eldest son in a noble family, while burd means “lady, maiden”. In some versions of the tale, they are the children of Queen Guinevere, and Merlin also plays a significant role in the story.

Ellen is a classic name in Australia, which was at its most popular in the 1900s, when it was #20. It remained on the Top 100 until the 1950s, and made its way back there in the 1990s, when it reached #92. It’s been fairly stable for a few years now, and in 2011 rose slightly from #517 to #470. Although this looks like quite a jump, it represents just two more babies named Ellen.

With Ella and Ellie in the Top 100, and Elle, Eleanor and Elena rapidly gaining in popularity, and retro Nelly, Nellie, Nella and Nelle becoming increasingly hip name choices, Ellen seems extremely usable, with a host of cute and fashionable nicknames. Simple, pretty and unpretentious, I feel that we will see more of this name in years to come.

Portia is a variant of Porcia, the feminine form of the Roman family name Porcius, from the Latin for “pig”. A lot of people have problems with this name meaning, but the Fabii were named after the broad bean, and perhaps the Porcii gained their name from pig farming.

Another possibility is that in many parts of the ancient world, pigs were sacred animals of the Underworld, fertility and the moon, and there may have been some religious connotations to the name (and in fact pig farming itself had a distinctly religious side, as the Romans were very fond of sacrificing pigs to the gods). Many ancient gods and goddesses were connected with swine, such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, Demeter, Persephone, Freya and Ceridwen. They were beasts of a mysterious and ancient power, and held in awe.

The most illustrious branch of the Porcius family were the Catones, which included Cato the Elder and his great-grandson, Cato the Younger. Cato the Younger had a beautiful, intelligent daughter named Porcia, and she married her cousin, Marcus Junius Brutus – famous for being one of the key people in the assassination plot against Julius Caesar. Porcia was the only woman who knew of the conspiracy, and as such she plays a role in William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar.

However, when we think of Portia, we automatically think of Portia from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, a beautiful and brilliantly intelligent lady who manages to get her own way while still showing obedience. She steals the show and saves the day in a gripping cross-dressing courtroom drama as her fine legal mind swoops in on a loophole in the law. Even now we sometimes call a gifted female lawyer a Portia. The role of Portia was once famously played by actress Ellen Terry.

Portia is an elegant literary name, with historical and fictional namesakes who have both beauty and brains. People seem to either love it, or find it pretentious. Another issue is that it sounds like the name of the car company, Porsche. (Porsche is a German surname derived from the name Boris). Because some people do use Porsche as a girl’s name, a certain type of parent does worry that a daughter named Portia will have her name confused with little girls named Porsche.

So Portia is not without her issues as a baby name, but still a very lovely one nonetheless.

POLL RESULT: Ellen received an approval rating of 46%, and Portia a rating of 31%.

(Photo shows Ellen and Portia on Sydney Harbour)

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