During the winter, I compiled lists of names from Olympic medalists, and perhaps you noticed that no swimmers were included. That’s because swimmers are such a big part of our team, and historically the big medal winners, so that they really needed lists all to themselves. Now that it’s hot again, maybe they will inspire you to hit the pool!
Alva Colquhuon won silver at the 1960 Olympics. Alva is the feminine form of the Scandinavian name Alf, from the Old Norse for “elf”. Alva is also a male name, a variant of the Hebrew name Alvah, meaning “his highness”. As a male name, it is best known as the middle name of American inventor Thomas Alva Edison. Today it almost seems like a cross between Ava and Alba.
Brittany Elmslie is a young swimmer who attended her first Olympics this year, where she won a gold and two silvers. Brittany is the name of a region in north-west France, which in French is known as Bretagne. It was once known as Little Britain in order to distinguish it from Great Britain, hence its name. The Breton language is Celtic, related to Welsh and Cornish, and the history of the land and its people is intimately connected to Great Britain. Even today, Brittany retains its own identity and culture within France. Brittany has been used as an English girl’s name since the late 18th century – perhaps originally because Brittany was known for its resistance to the French Revolution. The name first entered the charts in the 1970s, making #245 by the 1980s. It peaked in the 1990s at #31, then sharply dropped, leaving the Top 100 in the early 2000s. It hasn’t charted at all since 2009 (the year actress Brittany Murphy died), and this is a good example of a name which reaches popularity very quickly, then becomes just as rapidly dated.
Dawn Fraser is one of our most famous swimmers, who has received many honours; she is considered the greatest sprint swimmer of all time. She won two golds and a silver at the 1956 Olympics, a gold and two silvers in 1960, and a gold and a silver at the 1964 Games, setting two world records and two Olympic records. She is well known for her blunt speech and larrikin character, and one of the ferries on Sydney Harbour is named after her. Dawn is the period just before sunrise, where there is pale sunlight, but the sun itself is still below the horizon. The word comes from the Old English for “to become day”. The name is found from the 16th century onwards, and must at least sometimes have been given to girls born at daybreak. Dawn first entered the Australian charts in the 1910s, reaching #103 for the 1920s. It peaked in the 1930s at #32, and left the Top 100 in the 1950s. It hasn’t ranked since the 1980s, and the 1970s song Delta Dawn, about a crazy middle-aged woman, probably didn’t do its image any good – although covering it gave Australian singer Helen Reddy her first #1 hit. I wonder whether it might be time for a revival of this 1930s name? Apart from the fragile beauty of dawn, the word is filled with hope and optimism, and a sense of renewal.
Emily Seebohm has been a champion swimmer since 14 and is now 20. She won gold at the 2008 Olympics, and a gold and two silvers at the London Games. Emily is the English form of the Roman name Aemilia, the female form of the family name Aemilius. The Aemilii were one of the noblest and most ancient patrician houses of Rome, and were probably of Sabine origin. They interpreted their name as meaning “persuasive”, and others derived it from Latin aemulus, meaning “rival”, but most likely these are both false etymologies. The English form is first found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; he adapted it from a character named Emilia in a poem by Giovanni Boccaccio, where two men are rivals for the affections of the same woman. Although in use from early on, it didn’t become popular until the Hanoverians came to the throne in the 18th century, as Princess Amelia, daughter of George II, was called Emily by her family. Emily was #36 for the 1900s, but fell until it had left the Top 100 by the 1930s. It reached its lowest point in the 1950s at #455, then climbed steeply; it skyrocketed to make #26 for the 1980s. Emily peaked at #1 in 1998, and remained there for most of the early 2000s. Currently this pretty classic is #12.
Hayley Lewis was at her peak during the 1990s, when she won many medals internationally, but although she attended three Olympics, only won silver and bronze at the 1992 Games. Hayley is now the host of Channel Ten’s weight-loss show, The Biggest Loser. Hayley is an English surname from a common English place name meaning “hay clearing” in Old English; the surname dates from the 13th century and is especially associated with Yorkshire. It’s been used as a personal name for both boys and girls since the early 18th century, but only became popular in the 20th century, and only as a girl’s name. This was because of English actress Hayley Mills, who was the most popular child star of the 1960s, and made several Disney films as a teenager. Hayley first entered in the charts in the 1960s, when Mills began her career, debuting at #489. It climbed steeply during the 1970s, and was Top 100 by the 1980s. Hayley peaked in 2005 at #21, and is currently #50. It dropped just one place in 2011, and looks set to maintain a graceful decline that could see it in the Top 100 for several more years.
Jacinta (van Lint)
Jacinta van Lint won silver at the 2000 Olympics. Jacinta is the feminine form of the name Jacinto, a Spanish/Portuguese name meaning “hyacinth”. The Spanish pronunciation is something like ha-SEEN-tah, but in English we say it juh-SIN-tah. It is best known as the name of Blessed Jacinta Marto, who was one of the three children of Fátima in Portugal, who reported witnessing visions of an angel and the Virgin Mary in 1916-17. Jacinta has been rather a favourite in Australasia, first entering the charts in the 1950s, and climbing until it peaked at #101 for the early 2000s. It fell to #197 in 2009, and since then has picked up slightly, to make #189 last year. The fact that it entered the charts in the 1950s makes me wonder if use of the name was originally inspired by the 1952 Hollywood movie, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, which starred Sherry Jackson as Jacinta (the name had the English pronunciation in the film). It’s a pretty name which has had steady use without ever becoming highly popular in New South Wales – although more common in Victoria.
Lisbeth “Libby” Trickett won gold and bronze at the 2004 Olympics, two golds, a silver and a bronze in 2008 while setting a world record, and gold at the London Games this year. Lisbeth is a variant spelling of Lisbet, a Scandinavian short form of Elisabeth. The name has recently become well-known due to Lisbeth Salander, the antiheroine of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s crime thriller Millennium series. The first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was turned into a Hollywood movie last year, with Rooney Mara as Lisbeth. Lisbeth Salander is a disturbed computer hacker with a punk-Goth style, and a victim who refuses to lie down, but instead turns vigilante. It’s definitely given sweet Lisbeth a far more dangerous and edgy image.
Marilyn Wilson won silver at the 1960 Olympics. Marilyn is a portmanteau name combining Mary and Lynn. It can be found from the late 18th century, and seems to have sprung up in several countries almost simultaneously, so that an origin for the name isn’t obvious. Its most famous namesake is Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, and thanks to Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, nearly everyone knows her birth name was Norma Jeane. The name Marilyn was chosen for her by a studio executive because she reminded him of Broadway beauty Marilyn Miller (oddly enough, Marilyn later married writer Arthur Miller). Marilyn Miller was born Mary, and combined her name with her mother’s middle name to create her stage name. Marilyn first entered the charts in the 1920s, when Marilyn Miller began her career, and by the 1930s was #146. It skyrocketed to make the Top 100 in the 1940s, and peaked in the 1950s, the era in which Monroe enjoyed her greatest success, at #44. It then plummeted into the 200s during the 1960s after Monroe’s death, and hasn’t ranked at all since the 1980s. This is a dated name, yet still possesses some of the lustre of its two glamorous namesakes.
Nadine Neumann had to battle against the odds, first recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome as a teenager, then breaking her neck before she could attend the 1992 Olympics. She made it to the 1996 Games, but failed to win a medal. After retiring, Nadine became an educator and writer. Nadine is the French form of the Russian name Nadia, a short form of Nadezdha, meaning “hope”. The French pronunciation is na-DEEN, but in Australia we usually say it nay-DEEN. Its most famous namesake is South African novelist and political activist Nadine Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. In the 1960s, the name got its own popular song when Chuck Berry released Nadine, describing his object of desire as moving “like a wayward summer breeze”. Nadine first charted in the 1950s, the decade that Nadine Gordimer published her first novel; it debuted at #535. The name peaked in the 1970s at #145, and by 2009 no longer charted at all. However, Nadine recently made a minor comeback, reaching #573 last year. Irish singer Nadine Coyle, from pop group Girls Aloud, may have been a help; her first solo album was released at the end of 2010.
Sarah Ryan won silver at the 1996 Olympics, silver in 2000 and gold in 2004. In the Bible, Sarah was the wife of the prophet Abraham, and a woman of surpassing beauty; she is honoured in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She was barren until extreme old age, when God blessed her and Abraham with a son named Isaac. Her name was originally Sarai (said suh-RYE), but when she and Abraham made their covenant with God, her name was changed to Sarah. As both names have the same meaning (“woman of high rank, female ruler of the court”, translated as “princess”), it is unclear what the purpose of the change was. It’s possible the ah sound in Sarah suggested the name of Yahweh more closely, as if to demonstrate she was now a woman of the Lord, not of the world. In fact, Sarah is the only prophetess in the Bible who is spoken to directly by God. Although Sarah is a Hebrew name, its origins are Babylonian, and some scholars identify the Biblical Sarah with the goddess Ishtar. This vaguely fits with the Old Testament story, which says Abraham and his wife were originally pagans from Sumeria. Sarah was #43 in the 1900s, but had left the Top 100 by the 1920s, and reached its lowest point in the 1940s at #284. By the 1960s it was Top 100 again, and peaked in the 1980s at the #1 name. Currently it is #31, and remains a lovely classic.
(Picture is of Dawn Fraser at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne; photo from Wikimedia Commons)