Susannah is a variant of Susanna, which is from the Greek form of the Hebrew name Shoshannah, meaning “lily”. It may be related to the Egyptian word for “lotus”, and in modern Hebrew it is also understood as “rose”. There is a lot of debate as to which lily the Old Testament means when it says shoshannah – most likely it is the water lily, but others believe it is the flower we call the Madonna lily.
The story of Susanna appears in the Old Testament. According to the story, Susanna was a beautiful Hebrew wife of Babylon, married to a rich man. One day she was secretly watched while bathing in her garden by two lecherous old men. The peeping toms then confronted her, and told her that unless she gave herself to them, they would tell everyone that she has been meeting a young man in her garden.
Despite the two men being elders and judges, Susanna refused to give in to their blackmail, and was soon arrested, to be executed for adultery. At that point, a youth named Daniel sprang forward, and demanded that Susanna receive a fair trial. Intuitively aware the men were lying, Daniel cross-examined the two men separately and found a flaw in their witness testimony – one man claimed that Susanna was meeting her lover under a small tree, while the other said it was a large oak.
Susanna was acquitted, and the two old men put to death in her place for bearing false witness. Although it was a happy result for Susanna, the point of the story is to extol the intelligence and justice of Daniel, the future prophet, who from that moment forth is seen as something out of the ordinary.
In the Bible used by Catholics, Susanna’s story is one of the chapters in The Book of Daniel, but Protestants give it its own (very short) book. They don’t accept it as genuine Bible history, because it doesn’t appear in any Hebrew texts – it was originally written in Greek. However, they leave it in because it’s a nice story; Martin Luther described it as “beautiful religious fiction”. You could even see it as Biblical fan fiction.
There is a Susanna in the New Testament as well, who is mentioned in Luke. She was one of a group of women who were disciples of Jesus, and supported his ministry from their own funds, remaining faithful through his arrest and execution. These women were called The Myrrhbearers, because it was they who prepared Jesus’ body for burial and who bore witness of his empty tomb; they are regarded as apostles to the Apostles.
The name Susanna or Susannah has been used since medieval times, in honour of the Susanna from the Old Testament, but only became common after the Protestant Reformation, probably with the New Testament Susanna in mind. It has many variants, including Susan, Susana, Susanne, Suzanne and Suzette, and is used in many countries in different forms.
Susannah has appeared only sporadically in the charts in Australia, and has never been popular. The highest it’s ever been is #218 in the 1900s, and it also had a resurgence in the 1970s at #389, and in 2009 at #521. Currently it doesn’t chart at all.
Compare that to Susan, which has been almost continually on the charts, and was the #1 name of the 1950s. The 1950s was also the peak for Suzanne, while Susanne peaked in the Top 100 of the 1940s, and Susanna in the 1960s at #376. The other Su- names can all be dated to a particular decade, while Susannah isn’t tied to one specific era.
Susannah commemorates a beautiful Biblical heroine who preferred death to sullying her virtue, and whose story had a happy ending. Despite its pure lily-like meaning, to me it seems a cheerful, sunshiney name – it makes me think of bright yellow daisies more than pale lilies. Susannah is one of those names which seems bright and bubbly for a little girl, but smart and professional for a grown woman.
The fact that it is so familiar (and even similar to popular Savannah), yet so underused, must make it an attractive prospect for parents who are searching for a name which is different, but not too different; a name which has a history, but doesn’t sound dated. It could honour a Susan or a Suzanne, and its nicknames include Sue, Susie, Sukie, Sanna, Sunny, Annie, Zannah and Zuzu.
Thank you to Jamie for suggesting the name Susannah to be featured on Waltzing More Than Matilda
POLL RESULT: Susannah received a highly creditable approval rating of 79%. People saw the name Susannah as sweet and wholesome (21%), familiar yet underused (21%), beautiful or pretty (18%), and a happy, sunshiney name (14%). However, 6% thought it was plain and boring. Only one person thought the name would get confused with Savannah.
(Painting shown is Susanna at Her Bath by Hugues Merle, 19th century)