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The third largest city in Scotland, often called The Energy Capital of Europe because of its North Sea oil reserves, and Scotland’s most important city economically. Another of its claims to fame is that it is the coldest city in the UK. The original name for Aberdeen was Aberdon, a Celtic name meaning “mouth of the Don” – the River Don empties into the North Sea north of Aberdeen’s original site. The river’s name may be derived from Devona, a Celtic deity whose name means “river goddess”. I saw a baby girl named Aberdeen in the newspaper, and her mother emailed me to explain that her name is in honour of Kurt Cobain, lead singer for the rock band Nirvana, who was born in Aberdeen, Washington (Aberdeen’s father is a great admirer). The American city’s name is after a salmon cannery which was named for the Scottish city, because it is also situated on a rivermouth. A rare name with a possible feminine origin which can be shortened to Abby or Deeni.

The most northern state of the USA, separated from the continental US by Canada. First colonised by Russia, it was purchased by the United States in the 19th century, and eventually became a state in 1959. Once famous as a gold rush area and wild frontier, it is now known for its vast gas and oil reserves, and stunning natural beauty. The state’s name was adopted during the Russian colonial period, derived from an Aleut word meaning “mainland” (literally “that which the sea breaks against”). The name has become better known since the 2005 publication of John Green’s first young adult novel, Looking for Alaska, with the character of Alaska Young a beautiful but unstable teenage girl who is the hero’s love interest.

A town and major seaport in northern France and a major trading centre since the Middle Ages. It is famously located at the narrowest point of the English Channel, and a popular place to make for when swimming the Channel (or crossing by ferry). It was once a territory of England, and called “the brightest jewel in the English crown” for its rich commercial opportunities. The Romans called it Caletum, apparently in reference to the local Celtic tribespeople; it was from Calais that Caesar launched his invasion of Britain. Pronounced kal-ay, Calais sounds similar to names such as Callie and Carly while having the fashionable AY sound. Calais is also a boy’s name – in Greek mythology, Calaïs was a son of the North Wind, and one of the Argonauts. The name means “turquoise” or “chrysolithe” (another blue-green jewel), so is a rare masculine gemstone name. It is pronounced KAL-uh-ees. I’ve seen several boys in Australia named Calais, but more likely because of the car, the Holden Commodore Calais, than after the Greek hero.

The capital of Cuba, and a popular tourist destination that’s almost instantly recognisable from its colourful architecture and vintage cars. Under American occupation before the revolution, it was a playground for the middle classes, a sort of offshore Las Vegas with an exciting tinge of corruption and decadence. The city was founded by the Spanish in the early 16th century and named San Cristóbal de la Habana. Saint Christopher is the city’s patron, but the meaning of Habana isn’t certain. It may come from Habaguanex, the name of a Native American chief who controlled the region. The name has become fairly well known in Australia because of the DJ, singer, and dancer Havana Brown. Born in Melbourne to parents from Mauritius, Havana’s birth name is Angelique Meunier. The name Havana was #339 in Victoria in 2012. Pronounced huh-VAH-nuh, it fits in with the trend for names with a strong V sound, and looks like a natural successor to Ava and Harper.

A historic region of the Netherlands, sometimes informally used to refer to the country itself (Dutch people outside North and South Holland may not appreciate this, just as Scots don’t care for being told they’re from England). The name comes from the Middle Dutch holtland, meaning “wooded land”, but folk etymology connects it to the modern Dutch hol land, meaning “hollow land”, because the Netherlands is famously low-lying. Holland is also an area of Lincolnshire, similarly flat and famous for tulips, but its name comes from the Old English for “hill spur land, ridge land”. It is from this area that the English surname Holland comes, and you can see Holland as a surname name too. Both Holland Park in London and the Holland Tunnel in New York are from the Lincolnshire connection. Holland is also a fabric; this heavy linen was in the past often imported from the Netherlands. Long in use for both sexes, on a girl this name easily shortens to Holly.

India is named for the Indus River, one of the longest rivers of Asia, which flows from Tibet into the Arabian Sea; the Sanskrit name for the river is Sindhu, which means “body of trembling water”. Alexander the Great crossed the Indus, and the ancient Greeks called the people of present-day Pakistan and India Indoi, meaning “people of the Indus” – it’s the origin of the word for the Hindu religion as well. The Indus Valley was the birthplace for an ancient civilisation, the oldest urban culture in South Asia. In Britain, India was often given as a name in reference to the British Raj, and still has a rather upper class image in the UK. In the US, India had steady use in Indiana, but overall was more common in the south – a famous fictional namesake is India Wilkes from Gone With the Wind, the sister of Ashley. India was also given as a slave name in colonial America, perhaps because it was associated with a dark complexion. It’s always been a name which symbolises exoticism to Europeans, and is around the 200s in Australia, a natural successor to popular Indiana and sharing the nickname Indi.

An American state in the south, named for the Mississippi River, another inspiration for the name. The Mississippi is the chief river of North America, and one of the largest in the world, rising in Minnesota and meandering to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River Valley is one of the country’s most fertile areas, and was the focus for the steamboat era, brought to life in the works of Mark Twain. It features in songs such as Johnny Cash’s Big River, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary, and Charley Pride’s Roll on Mississippi. The river’s name comes from Misi-ziibi, the Objibwe or Algonquin for “great river”. Lengthy, and a spelling minefield for the unwary, this comes with two snappy nicknames: Missi and Sippi.

A city in the Ukraine founded by Catherine the Great. It was named thus because of a belief that it was the site of an ancient Greek city called Odessos – Odessos is now thought to have been where Varna, in modern Bulgaria, is today. The name is probably pre-Greek, and its meaning and origin unknown. A free port, Odessa was a city where people of many cultures and languages mingled; its cosmopolitan nature made it a place for freethinkers to congregate, and Mark Twain predicted it would become one of the great cities of the world. The first tremors of the Russian Revolution could be felt here in 1905, after a workers’ uprising was put down with a brutal massacre. Odessa looks as if it could be related to all kinds of familiar names, and is sometimes even touted as a feminine form of Odysseus, so it feels like a “real name”. It’s right on trend and would make a great alternative to popular Olivia.

The largest desert in Africa, and the largest hot desert of the world, the Sahara stretches right across northern Africa, often very beautiful in its shifting sandscapes. Its name is an intensifier of ṣaḥrā , the Arabic word for desert, to suggest “great desert”. The singer-songwriter Sahara Smith received her name because her father hiccuped while suggesting the name Sara, and liked the result. This is a pretty name which is so similar to names like Sara, Sarah, Zara and Zahara that its main issue is probably being confused with them.

A city in northern Italy built on a series of islands separated by a maze of canals and linked by bridges. It is seen as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a very romantic destination, thanks to its ornate architecture and the gondolas providing transport through its waterways. A wealthy city for most of its history, it has a particularly strong connection with the arts and music, and has featured in many plays, novels, and films. The city’s name comes from the Veneti, the tribespeople who populated the area in ancient times. Etymologists believe their name comes from an ancient root meaning “strive, wish for, love” (to suggest strong kinship bonds), giving it a very attractive meaning as well. The name seems to have been used since the 16th century, although in at least some records, may have been confused with the related names Venus or Venetia. This artistic name would make a good alternative to rising Florence.

People’s favourite names were Odessa, India and Holland, and their least favourite were Havana, Venice and Mississippi.

(Photo is of Denali National Park in Alaska)