I’m always on the look-out for unusual names in the birth notices, and here are a dozen that are little used, but have intriguing histories. If you are looking for a rare yet genuine name, but fear choosing something too strange, you can take heart that these names have all been recently used by real life Australian parents.
Sanskrit name meaning “divine offering”, from the word anj, meaning “to honour, to celebrate”. The Añjali Mudrā is a gesture of respect used in India as a greeting, where the palms join over the heart. If you go to yoga classes, you may greet each other with an Añjali Mudrā; it’s also part of several yoga positions. Anjali is quite a common name in India, and you may know the name as that of the wife of Indian cricket star, Sachin Tendulkar. A pretty Indian name that works very well in English-speaking countries, it is usually pronounced UN-juh-lee, although English-speakers may prefer an-JAH-lee.
Latin American form of cattleya, a type of South American tropical orchid with large, showy flowers. The orchid is named after English horticulturist William Cattley, who was the first European to successfully bring one into bloom. His surname comes from Catley in Herefordshire, meaning “wildcat wood”. Readers of Marcel Proust may recall that in Swann’s Way, the courtesan Odette wore a cattleya as decoration on her gown one evening, and her lover Swann removed it for her. As one thing led to another, they used cattleya as a private word between them for lovemaking. Cataleya was the highest-rising girls’ name in the United States last year, rocketing into the Top 500 from nowhere. The reason is the 2011 action film Colombiana, where the heroine is the assassin Cataleya, who leaves a cattleya as her calling card. Exotic and with a tough girl namesake, it is pronounced kah-tah-LAY-uh.
In the New Testament, a woman named Damaris is mentioned as a convert of Saint Paul in Athens. Very little is known about her, although it is assumed she was a woman of high social status, but she is recognised as a saint in the Orthodox faith, and there is a street named after her in Athens. Her name is a matter of debate: the most popular theory is that is from the Greek word damalis, which literally means “heifer”, but is understood as “young girl”. Another is that it is derived from damar, the Greek word for “wife”. Once fashionable in 17th century England, this is a little-used biblical name that has gained modern glamour by American swimsuit model Damaris Lewis. The name is pronounced DAM-uh-ris.
Spanish form of the Latin name Sperantia, meaning “to hope”; esperanza is the Spanish vocabulary word for “hope”. The name got some publicity in 2010 because of Campamento Esperanza (“Camp Hope”), set up in Chile by friends and relatives after a cave-in at a mine; many weeks later their prayers were answered when all 33 miners were rescued. The following year, jazz singer Esperanza Spalding was named Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards. The name also has a motherly vibe, for Esperanza is the wife of Zorro, and mother of his beloved daughter Elena in The Mask of Zorro, while the mare who gives birth to the stallion Spirit in the animated movie is named Esperanza. Another famous mum is Oscar Wilde’s mother, who wrote under the pen name Speranza. Esperanza is a cool name that’s unusual, but not unfamiliar.
Variant of Farah, a unisex Arabic name meaning “joy”. The name is well known because of the glamorous 1970s actress Farrah Fawcett, who passed away a few years ago. Farrah Fawcett posed for an iconic photograph wearing a red Speedo swimsuit, so there is an Australian connection to her. More recently, Farrah King from the hip hop outfit Cherish has given it fresh publicity. Soft and pretty, Farrah is an Arabic name which works well cross-culturally.
Modern French name, which is pronounced to rhyme with the word mauve. Fauve literally means “wild beast” in French, referring to beasts of prey, and especially the big cats, such as lions and tigers. The word has a very artistic heritage, because in the early twentieth century, les Fauves were a group of modern artists who were known for their bold use of bright colours; they got their name because their work was criticised as looking like something a wild beast would produce. Henri Matisse is one of the most famous of this group. However, fauve has another meaning in French, and that is “yellowish-brown” – a tawny lion colour which would suit someone with dark blonde hair. Fauve is an uncommon name in France, and a rare one here, although not unheard of. It’s very daring, but also on trend.
In the Old Testament, Jerusha was the daughter of a high priest, and a queen of Judah, the wife of King Uzziah. Uzziah was considered one of the greatest rulers of the kingdom, but he became too proud, and began to usurp the role of the priests. Struck down with a disfiguring skin disease, he was replaced by his son Jotham, who is listed as one of the ancestors of Jesus in the New Testament. The name means “possession” in Hebrew, in the sense of something precious, and is said jeh-ROO-sha. A literary namesake is the teenage girl in the children’s book Daddy Long-Legs: she goes by the name Judy, although Roo would be a very Australian nickname.
French name which is a pet form of the Germanic names Oda or Odilia. These names may both be feminine forms of names which became the German name Otto, meaning “wealth”, although Odilia might instead mean “fatherland”. The name is forever associated with swans, because Princess Odette is the White Swan in the ballet Swan Lake; a sweet, gentle girl, she has been transformed into a swan, and can only take human form at night. Only true love can break the spell, but thanks to nefarious scheming by the baddies, Odette’s story ends in tragedy. Odette is a dated name in France, but to English-speakers, sounds glamorous and romantic. The Disney movie The Swan Princess, based on the ballet, makes it more accessible as well.
In Greek mythology, Persephone was the daughter of the agriculture goddess Demeter, and she is central to one of the oldest myths. Legend says that Demeter kept her daughter hidden away from the other gods, so the two could live in companionship with nature. Hades, the god of death, fell in love with Persephone, and one day when she was gathering flowers, he kidnapped her and took her to live in the Underworld as his wife. Demeter was so grief-stricken that she neglected the earth, and nothing would grow: seeing that people were starving to death, Zeus demanded that Persephone be returned. However, Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, and having tasted its food, was obliged to spend several months of the year with Hades. While Persephone is underground, Demeter mourns for her, and it is winter: when she returns in spring, life is renewed. This ancient myth of death and rebirth comes from the Near East: many rituals and mystery traditions are associated with it, with special significance for girls and women. The name Persephone is interpreted as “female thresher of corn”, because she is an agricultural goddess, but another theory is that her name means “bringer of death”, as she is goddess of the Underworld. The Greeks had so many forms of her name that it would seem they had trouble pronouncing it, suggesting that her name was pre-Greek; it is said per-SEF-uh-nee. Beautiful and elaborate, primal to the human urge for life everlasting, this would be a wonderful choice for someone who thought that Penelope had become too popular to use.
Variant of Riva, a pet form of Rivka, modern Hebrew form of the familiar name Rebecca. This comes from the Hebrew word ribhquh, which literally means “a connection”; it can thus be understood as “joining together, securing”. Reeva is also used as a name in India, a variant of Reva, which is Sanskrit for “one who moves”, and often translated as “swift, agile”. It is one of the epithets of Rati, the Hindu goddess of love. The name came into the public eye in a shocking way when South African model Reeva Steenkamp was shot and killed by her boyfriend, world renowned paralympian Oscar Pistorius, now serving a prison sentence for culpable homicide. Due to the notoriety of the high-profile legal trial, Reeva became the fastest-rising girls’ name in England and Wales last year. Reeva fits in with popular names like Ava and Eva, but the very public tragedy of Reeva Steenkamp’s death may make some parents uneasy about using it.
Greek form of Zipporah, variant of the Hebrew name Tzipporah, meaning “bird”. In the Old Testament, Zipporah is mentioned as the daughter of the priest Jethro, and the wife of Moses. When Moses fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian man, he took refuge in the desert country of Midian, on the Arabian Peninsula. When Zipporah and her sisters went to water their flocks, they were driven off by shepherds who wanted the water for themselves, and Moses went to their defence. Moses ended up living with Jethro and working for him, and was given Zipporah in marriage. Zipporah had problems with the in-laws, because Moses’ sister Miriam criticised him for marrying a dark-skinned woman, but she was struck down with leprosy in punishment, showing that God approved of the marriage. Sephora is more popular in France than elsewhere, because of the Parisian cosmetics company of that name, but this lovely name isn’t common anywhere.
Roman form of the Greek name Hesperus. In Greek mythology, Hesperus was the personalification of the Evening Star (the planet Venus as seen in the evening); his half-brother Phosphorus was the Morning Star. Vesper can be intepreted as “evening, supper time, west”, and Vespers is the name for the evening prayer service in the Christian church. You may know the poem Vespers by A.A. Milne, about Christopher Robin saying his nightly prayers: it was made part of the minature library collection for Queen Mary’s Doll House. Although a rare name in real life, Vesper has had several outings in the world of fiction. Vesper Lynd was James Bond’s lover in Casino Royale, played by Eva Green in the 2006 movie; her parents gave her the name because she was born on a “dark and stormy night”. The famous “shaken not stirred” martini that Bond invents is named the Vesper after her. Vesper has been picked used as a celebrity baby name – one is the daughter of American rock musician Sam Farrar, whose parents are Australian.
The public’s favourite names were Persephone, Odette and Vesper, and their least favourite were Cataleya, Damaris and Jerusha.
(Picture shows Purple Robe and Anemones by Fauvist Henri Matisse – 1937)