An Egyptian lotus and a Hebrew rose

U.S. suffragist and political activist Susan B. Anthony, 1820–1906

Susan, a name most popular from the 1940s–1960s, traces its etymology back to a rather unexpected source—Ancient Egypt. This is one Indo–European name that didn’t originate among the Vikings, Anglo–Saxons, Normans, Goths, Romans, or Greeks.

Sšn means “lotus” in Egyptian, and later morphed into the Ancient Hebrew word shoshan, “lily.” In Modern Hebrew, shoshan means “rose.” It gave rise to the name Shoshanah, and then was adopted by the Greeks as Sousanna.

Over time, it appeared in many European languages in various forms. In the Medieval Anglophone world, Susannah was sometimes used in honour of a woman falsely accused of adultery in the Book of Daniel, and another Biblical woman who ministers to Jesus. Only after the Protestant Reformation did it become more common, in the form of Susan.

French painter Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) with her son Maurice

Susan was #80 when the U.S. began keeping name records in 1880, and left the Top 100 in 1885. It briefly returned in 1887, then dropped out again and gradually sank in popularity. During the 1930s, it slowly made its way back up the chart, and re-entered the Top 100 in 1937 at #97.

In 1945, it was #10, and entered the Top 5 in 1948. Apart from 1951 and 1966, when it was #6, Susan was in the Top 5 until 1968. Its all-time highest rank was #2, from 1957–60. In 1972, it fell off the Top 20, and left the Top 100 in 1985.

Susan’s last year on the Top 1000 was 2017, when it was #957.

Austrian-born painter Soshana Afroyim (née Susanne Schüller),
1927–2015

Other forms of the name include:

1. Suzanne is French, Dutch, and English.

2. Susanna is English, Dutch, Russian, Ukrainian, Italian, Catalan, Swedish, Estonian, and Finnish. The alternate form Súsanna is Icelandic, Faroese, and Irish; Susánna and Susánná are Sami.

3. Susannah is English.

4. Susana is Spanish and Portuguese.

5. Suzana is Serbian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Brazilian–Portuguese, Romanian, and Croatian.

6. Susanne is German and Scandinavian.

7. Syuzanna is old-fashioned Russian.

8. Suzanna is English.

9. Shoshana, or Shoshanah, is Hebrew.

10. Sawsan is Arabic.

Hungarian Princess Zsuzsanna Lorántffy (1602–1660), who founded and sponsored several schools, including schools offering girls a modern, equal education

11. Savsan is Tajik.

12. Sosamma is Malayalam, a language spoken in India.

13. Zsuzsanna is Hungarian.

14. Zuzanna is Polish and Latvian.

15. Zuzana is Czech and Slovak.

16. Huhana is Maori.

17. Zusana is Sorbian.

18. Syzana is Albanian.

19. Siùsan is Scottish.

20. Sósanna is a rare Irish form.

Polish poet Zuzanna Ginczanka, 1917–1945

21. Susaina is a Catalan variant, usually used on Mallorca.

22. Suzannah is English.

23. Suzonne is Norman.

24. Jujen is Marshallese.

25. Siwsan is Welsh.

26. Susane is English.

27. Suusan is Inuit.

28. Suzette is a French diminutive, also used in English as a full name.

29. Suzzanna is a rare English form.

30. Shushan is Armenian.

31. Susano is a male Filipino form.

All about Ruth

U.S. anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict, 1887–1948

Ruth is an English, German, Dutch, Spanish, and Scandinavian name derived from the Hebrew Re’ut (friend), which later morphed into Rut (pronounced with a long U, not like the English word “rut”). Most people are familiar with it as the title character of the Book of Ruth. She left her homeland Moab behind to follow her mother-in-law Naomi back to Israel after a famine, and became King David’s great-grandma.

On the second day of Shavuot, this short book of the Bible is read, and many conversion certificates quote the moving words Ruth tells Naomi:

“Do not entreat me to leave you, and to return from following after you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more, if anything but death part you and me.”

Latvian lawyer, writer, and politician Ruta Šaca-Marjaša (1927–2016)

Though the name has long been common in the Jewish world, it didn’t come into widespread usage in the Christian world till the Protestant Reformation. Ruth received a big boost of popularity several centuries later, from U.S. President Grover Cleveland’s firstborn child, born in 1891. She was born between his two non-consecutive terms, and sadly died of diphtheria in 1904.

Ruth was #93 in the U.S. when name popularity records began in 1880, and it jumped from #19 to #5 after the birth of Ruth Cleveland. In 1893, it was #3. The next two years, Ruth was #6, and it remained at #5 until 1907. It then was #4 for two years, then back to #5 again till 1922.

The name remained in the Top 10 till 1930, and was Top 20 till 1937. Ruth left the Top 50 in 1951, and left the Top 100 in 1962. In 2018, it was #265.

Ruth Cleveland

Other forms of the name include:

1. Ruta is Polish, Ukrainian, and Maori. The alternate form Rūta is Latvian and Lithuanian.

2. Rute is Portuguese.

3. Ruut is Finnish and Estonian.

4. Rut is Hebrew, Spanish, Icelandic, Scandinavian, Sorbian, Italian, Maltese, Indonesian, Afrikaans, and German. The alternate form Rút is Czech and Slovak.

5. Ruf is Russian. I’ve never been a fan of Russian names where TH is replaced by F in the middle of the name. It just sounds ugly to my ears.

6. Rutt is Estonian.

7. Hrut is Armenian.

8. Hirut is Amharic.

9. Luka is Hawaiian, and not to be confused with the entirely separate name with the same spelling which is several languages’ form of Luke.

10. Luti is Nyakyusa, a language spoken in Tanzania and Malawi.

11. Rutu is Maori and Yoruba.

Should religious and secular names match?

Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Neopaganism all have the tradition of using a distinct name for religious life, a name which doesn’t always match one’s legal name. Depending on how religious one is, that other name may be used almost exclusively, with the name on the birth certificate only being used on things like legal documents and during customs checks at airports.

Other people, on the flip side, are so completely secular and assimilated they rarely, if ever, use the religious name. At most, they might have that name on their gravestone. I’ve been at more than a few services where people called to the Torah genuinely didn’t know their own Hebrew names, or those of their parents.

Regardless of where one falls on the religious spectrum, should these names be direct translations of one another or have similar sounds? Should they be one and the same, or is it okay if they’re radically different? These considerations can be applied to naming fictional characters, naming a baby or adopted child, renaming yourself, taking a confirmation name, and adopting a new name upon joining a religious order.

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Historically, a baptismal name was required to be a saint’s name, often different from the given name even if it were already a saint’s name. Some priests permitted non-saint names so long as a saint’s name was added to the existing name. In modern times, things have been relaxed quite a bit, with the only stipulation being that a name not be “foreign to a Christian mentality.”

It goes without saying that one’s confirmation name be a saint’s name, as well as the name adopted when taking religious vows. Though many nuns, priests, and monks often had no choice in the past, today they can choose their own new names. Many modern postulants continue using their original baptismal names.

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For much of Jewish history, one’s Hebrew and everyday names were one and the same. Having a secular name from the host country’s language wasn’t even considered until legal emancipation arrived, and with it increased cultural assimilation.

Some countries, like Hungary, demanded all legal names be from the country’s national language, with relatively few approved names being translations of Hebrew names. In places without legal emancipation, like the Russian Empire, people were forbidden to give their kids vernacular names or change their own names.

Yet another example of how I was that kid who read too much and understood too little: For years, I gave my Jewish characters native Dutch, Polish, German, Italian, Romanian, etc., first and last names. The names of Biblical origin were fairly common names outside the Jewish community.

I’d obviously heard Jewish surnames like Goldman, Rosenberg, and Cohen, but I didn’t put two and two together. I was genuinely surprised when I discovered how different Russian–Jewish history was from the mainstream Russian history I was so familiar with, and how they had no love lost with their native land!

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Some people prefer a religious name be a translation of the legal name, or one and the same. Other times, it might start with the same letter or have a similar sound if there’s no equivalent. There are also some names which have lovely meanings or inspiring history but are too much of a mouthful or sound heavy and old-fashioned.

If you’re naming yourself or a character, you’re free of the family pressure which often comes with naming a baby. Many families make parents feel compelled to only and always name after dead relatives instead of using original names they truly love. I’ve spoken before about how ridiculous I think it is to claim a single initial counts as a real namesake.

Regardless, the only people who count in real-life naming are the parents or the person oneself. Maybe you love the name Apollonia, Faustina, Qismat, Jerome, Achilles, or Arjuna more than a massively overused name that doesn’t speak to you. Perhaps the translation of your religious name doesn’t appeal to you, or you want them to be worlds apart.

Your friends and relatives aren’t the one who’ll have to live with that name for the rest of their lives. Don’t meekly accept a name out of blind duty or not wanting to disappoint people. That makes for a terrible naming story.

And if you don’t like the name your parents chose for you, you can always change it when you’re an adult. If everyone used the same hundred names over and over again, life would be quite boring.

All about Tobias

Scottish writer Tobias Smollett (1721–71), painted ca. 1770

Tobias is the Greek form of Hebrew names Toviyahu and Toviyah (God is good). Besides Greek, this form of the name is also used in English, German, Slovak, Portuguese, and the Scandinavian languages. The alternate form Tobiáš (To-bee-AHSH) is Czech; Tóbiás (same pronunciation) is Hungarian; Tobías is Spanish, Catalan, and Galician; and Tóbías is Icelandic.

Though the name only enjoys modest popularity in the U.S. (#275 in 2018, with a high of #246 in 2016), it’s much more popular in Austria (#10), Norway (#17), the Czech Republic (#24 as of 2016), The Netherlands (#50), England and Wales (#98).

Tobias enjoys the most sustained popularity of all in Austria. It started at #39 in 1990 and jumped into the Top 10 in 2000, at #9. The name was #3 from 2002–04, #2 from 2005–09, #4 from 2010–12, and #1 in 2013. It’s been in the Top 10 for almost twenty years.

Brazilian poet, philosopher, literary critic, and jurist Tobias Barreto de Meneses, 1839–89

Other forms of this lovely name include:

1. Tobiasz is Polish.

2. Topias is Finnish. One of the nicknames is Topi.

3. Tobia is Italian.

4. Tobiah is an alternative, old-fashioned Hebrew transliteration.

5. Tuviyah, Tuviah, Tuvya, or Tuvia is modern Hebrew.

6. Tevye is Yiddish. Probably everyone knows this name as the protagonist of Fiddler on the Roof!

7. Tobie is French.

8. Tobies is a rare Catalan form.

9. Tobit is Amharic. This is also the title character of a book of the Bible.

10. Tobejas is Sami.

Polish-Belarusian partisan hero Tuvia Bielski, who together with his three brothers saved over 1,200 people from the Nazis (1906–87); image used to illustrate subject under fair use rationale

11. Thobias is a Scandinavian variant.

12. Tobiasi is Kven, a Finnic language spoken in northern Norway.

13. Tobiôsz is Kashubian.

14. Tobyś is Vilamovian.

15. Tovias is a rare modern Greek form.

16. Toviya is Russian.

17. Tovija is Serbian.

18. Tobija is Slovenian.

19. Toby is English. This is also sometimes used as a female name.

20. Toviy is Russian.

Polish-Israeli Nazi-hunter Tuviah Friedman, 1922–2011

Female forms:

1. Tobina is a rare Swedish form.

2. Tobia is also a rare Swedish form.

All about Emanuel

U.S. actor Edward G. Robinson, né Emanuel Goldenberg, 1893–1973

Emanuel is the Romanian, Scandinavian, German, Portuguese, English, Czech, Slovak, and Croatian form of the Hebrew Imanuel (God is with us). In the Book of Isaiah, this is foretold as the name of the Messiah. Somewhat surprisingly, the name didn’t become popular in the Anglophone world till the 16th century (with the spellings Emmanuel and Immanuel). In continental Europe, it’s always been far more popular.

The variation Emánuel is Hungarian; Emanuël is Dutch; Emanúel is Icelandic; and Émanuél is Kashubian. I’ve really grown to love this name, not least because it was the birth name of one of my favourite male actors of the sound era!

Other forms include:

1. Emmanuel is French and English. The variation Emmanúel is Icelandic, and Emmanuël is Dutch.

2. Immanuel is German and English. The variation Immanúel is Icelandic, and Immanuël is Dutch.

3. Emmanuil is Russian. One of the nicknames is Emik.

4. Emmanouil is Greek.

5. Emanuil is Bulgarian. This is also a rare Croatian and Romanian variant.

6. Emanoil is Romanian.

7. Imanol is Basque.

8. Manu is Finnish.

9. Emanuele is Italian.

10. Manuel is Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, German, and English.

Greek aviation pioneer Emmanouil Argyropoulos, 1889–1913

11. Manoel is Brazilian–Portuguese.

12. Manel is Catalan.

13. Emanuels is Latvian.

14. Emaneulu is Samoan.

15. Emanuelis is Lithuanian.

16. Emmanwel is Maltese.

17. Manvel is Armenian.

18. Manyl is Mari, a Uralic language spoken in Russia.

19. Amaniu is Gascon.

20. Ammanuel is Ethiopian.

Russian politician Emmanuil Aleksandrovich Vatatsi, 1856–1920

Female forms:

1. Emanuela is Italian, Romanian, Czech, Slovak, and Croatian; Émanuela is Kashubian; and Emanuéla is Hungarian.

2. Emmanuelle is French.

3. Manoela is Brazilian–Portuguese.

4. Manuela is Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, German, Galician, Slovenian, and Croatian. The variation Manuéla is Hungarian.

5. Immanuelle is Filipino.

6. Emmanuella is English.

7. Enmanuela is Galician.

8. Emmanuele is French.

9. Emmanuela is a rare Italian and modern Greek form.

10. Emmanouella, or Emmanouela, is Greek.