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Name the Baby … What?

by Rima Magee

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

Wm. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Sc. 2 Line 43

 When a baby comes into the world kicking and screaming, its parents look with delight upon this new human being and breathe a name they have been sweating over for months. Amazon lists more than 9000 books in their search field of “Baby Names.” Look for web sites with a search for “Names” and wind up with close to 88 million results to click on. It is a daunting task, indeed.

The surname, to which Romeo alludes is, of course, sacred. One does not tinker with it. A man looks to his son to carry the family name into immortality. It is a source of great pride to him. The mother, who has taken his name, usually fosters this pride. (Today’s husband-less mothers give the infant their own surnames.) We see this in the multitudes of Jr.s, IIIs, IVs and even Vs if we go back enough generations. In some cultures, the wife is included in the family name of the child — boy or girl. For example, in Spain, a girl might bear the name Angela de Romero y MontoyaRomero being the father’s last name, Montoya, the mother’s. And there are the women today who wish to maintain their personal identity, so the couple becomes, for example, John and Mary Smith-Jones. In Scandinavian cultures identity was established with such names as John Johnson (John, son of John,) John Petersen, (John, son of Peter,) etc. The Anglo-Saxon culture identified a man by his work — John (the) Baker, John (the) Farmer, John (the) Fisherman, John (the) Hunter, John (the) Smith. There must have been many prolific Smiths in the old days, considering that it is the longest list in the telephone directory. What the kids do about it when they are on their own could become complicated. I hesitate to speculate.

Given names have a different history. Numbered names have been reserved by royalty — Henry VIII, Elizabeth II, and the papacy — Leo XIII, John XXIII, John Paul II.

Our Social Security Administration, always seeking to be helpful, publishes, on its web site, the top ten names selected by parents last year. At the time we had to get a Social Security Card in 1936, there were applicants born in 1880. Until 1947, Mary was Number One — a “grand old name,” according to the song. Below is the 2005 listing of these names, with their origin and meaning. All of the boys’ names have a religious or biblical connotation. Only two of the girls’ names came from the Old Testament. The rest seem to be influenced by famous people.

The meaning of names has a lot to do with their selection. The SSA’s top ten is a case in point — in order of popularity:

  • Jacob , Hebrew, biblical son of Isaac and Rebecca; twin brother of Esau (Genesis) — “supplant, conceal, grip by the heel”
  • Michael , Hebrew, recognized as an angel (Daniel and Numbers) — “who is like the Lord”
  • Joshua , Hebrew, successor of Moses (Exodus) – “God is my salvation; deliverer, savior ”
  • Matthew , Hebrew, one of the 12 apostles; author of the first gospel (Matthew) — “gift of the Lord; given, a reward”
  • Ethan, Hebrew, son of Zerach, grandson of Judah (Chronicles) — “strong; the gift of the island”
  • Andrew , Greek, apostle, brother of Simon Peter (Matthew) – “manly, strong, courageous”
  • Daniel, biblical, Hebrew prophet (Daniel) — - “God is my judge”
  • Anthony , Latin and Greek, Antonia was a fortress built by Herod and named for his friend Mark Anthony. Antonia is referred to as a castle or barracks (Acts) — “worthy of praise, flourishing, priceless”
  • Christopher , Greek — “anointed; Christ bearer”
  • Joseph , 11 th son of Jacob and first son of Rachel; husband of Mary (New Testament) — “he shall add; increase, addition”


  • Emily , Latin and German — “flatterer”, “industrious”
  • Emma , Old German — “Universal, nurse”
  • Madison , English — “good”
  • Abigail , King David’s third wife — “My father is a joy”
  • Olivia , Latin — “olive tree”
  • Isabella , Old Spanish — “consecrated to God”
  • Hannah , biblical Hebrew, Samuel’s mother — “graceful”
  • Samantha , Aramaic — “listener”
  • Ava , Latin — “birdlike”
  • Ashley , Old English — “From the ash tree meadow”.


What about “Rima”? My mother, an incurable romantic, selected the heroine of the novel, Green Mansions, by W.H. Hudson, published around the turn of the 20 th Century. Unlike many girls with unusual names, I had no trouble with it in school. In fact, I stayed out of trouble because I was identified too easily. In high school, my creative writing English teacher insisted that my name looked nice in print. (I kind of like it that way, too.) She put me on the staff of The Sketchbook, the school’s literary magazine the last three semesters before I was graduated.

I never knew any other Rimas. Or about them until a few years ago. It is, I found out, a common name for girls in the Middle East. There is a plethora of Rimas with Arabic and Aramaic surnames. In Aramaic, one source says it means “antelope.” In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, there is the RIMA Group of Colleges. In the UK, there are the Rima Awards given by the Commission for Racial Equality, a non-government organization that acts as an oversight body over incidents of discrimination.

I am naturally biased in favor of the Rima of Green Mansions, a sprite of a maiden of 17 with whom the narrator, Abel, falls in love. She was a naturalist who spoke with the birds in their own language. She could be regarded as a rabid environmentalist of her time, who fought back against the local Indians who invaded her Venezuelan forest to hunt. They called her the daughter of the Didi (devil).

It is a beautiful story and has become part of classic literature. Borrowing Longfellow’s format in which Evangeline and Hiawatha were written, I wrote an epic poem of many stanzas entitled Remembering Rima. The first and last stanzas are recorded here:

“To the west of the Orinoco , in the land of the Parahuari,
Once stood a mystical forest, a haven of nature’s protection;
With trees reaching upward to Heaven, the sunshine laced in their branches,
A vaulted ceiling of verdure above the glades and the tangle
Of twisted vines in the jungle and deeper recessions of caverns.
A garden of God’s own construction, most precious of all the Green Mansions.”  

“For somewhere in every country beyond the mountains and rivers,
Lie forests as lovely as any west of the Orinoco,
Where creatures can dwell in the harmony of the cycles of nature.
And waters are bubbling cleanly over the rocks and the mosses.
And perhaps there is even a Rima, speaking to birds in their language,
And zealously guarding the forests, keeping them as our Green Mansions.”


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