Wednesday, October 02, 2013

What's in a name?

My grandma never really liked her given name. In fact, she disliked it so passionately that she went by her middle name, Pearl, for her entire life. I'm not sure when that decision was made but it must have been made early on because her report cards from grade school are made out to Pearl.

Her mother and father both went by their middle names (Ed and May, as opposed to Charles and Celia, respectively), though their children seem to mostly have gone by their given names or their given and middle names in succession (Loren, Alma, Royal, Edna, Earl, Lillis, Zilpha, Leo, Mary Beth, Celia, and Ila June) except for my grandma—Zetta Pearl. Like her parents, she went by her middle name.

Grandma found her first name to be ghastly, which is interesting because I share her middle name and always found it to be...ghastly.

I'm sorry, but it's like Earl with a P in front. Clearly since my great-grandparents had both an Earl and a Pearl they did not share my sentiment about that name and I will admit that the name has grown on me since then (Pearl, not Earl—I still feel the same way about Earl). Part of the reason I like the name Pearl now is because I love my grandma so much. A lot of it also probably has to do with the fact that I'm stuck with the name so I might as well enjoy it.

Anyway, the name Pearl (which peaked in popularity in the 1890s as the 26th most popular name (with 3,967 baby Pearls per million babies born)) was still relatively popular in 1928 when my grandma was born (87th most popular name in 1920 and 157th most popular name in 1930), though it dropped completely out of favour in the 1980s and stayed virtually unused for three decades when it finally popped back on the charts in 2010 as the 963rd most popular name.

The name Zetta enjoyed its zenith in the 1880s with 45 baby Zettas per million babies born. But while Pearl was able to maintain its popularity for a few decades Zetta, on the other hand, fell into complete oblivion by 1910 and hasn't made the chart since then (though I do know of at least one child who was given the name in 1928 there weren't enough children named Zetta to be statistically significant).

My grandmother, like me, was rather timid and enjoyed not being the center of attention. It's no wonder she preferred the name Pearl. It was a safe alternative to Zetta, far less attention-drawing (because the last thing an introvert needs is an ice-breaker of a name).

Her grandchildren, without question, have also shunned the name Zetta, opting instead to pass on the name Pearl. Three girls in my family share the name Pearl (through four generations; we're missing a generation because my grandma didn't pass on either of her names to any of her daughters):

Zetta Pearl (my grandma)
Nancy Pearl (me)
Olivia Pearl (my niece)

Last night as I was doing some family history work I felt inclined to find out what Zetta meant. I guess it's because I felt inclined to find out what Zilpha meant, a name which, for whatever reason, is on my family tree multiple times even though, if anything, it is more exotic a name than Zetta.

Zilpha is a Hebrew name meaning 'frailty.' If you thought Zilpha was a bad enough name, one of my ancestors (my great-great-grandmother) was named Zilpha Zobedia. No fall-back name for her. I almost wonder if her name is meant to be Zobeida (a name of Arabic origin, apparently meaning 'rich'). I had a friend once who was supposed to be named Aimee but instead her name is Amiee because her mom made a mistake when she wrote out the birth certificate.

But anyway...

I looked up the name Zetta and much to my delight I found that it's the Hebrew/Arabic root for olive!

That was exciting to learn because quite unknowingly, my sister named her daughter Olivia Pearl, which is about as close to naming her Zetta Pearl as you could get without actually naming her Zetta Pearl!

When I told Andrew this he said something like, "Oh, of course! But olive is a little funny in Arabic because it's Zeitoun, but the root would be 'zta' but for some reason it takes the -oun ending, which is a human-only ending so it's weird to have it apply to olives. Something weird happened to that word a long time ago..."

"Zeitoun is obviously a boy's name, though," I said. I know of some Zeitouns and they're all boys (though I didn't know before last night that it meant ).

"Zeitouna would be the female form," Andrew said.

"Yeah, we're not going to be naming any of our girls Zeitouna," I cringed.

"That's fine with me," Andrew agreed.

No one should have to go through life with 'tuna' tacked on the end of their name. I'm sure my grandma would have been rather happy her parents chose Zetta rather than Zeitouna, don't you think?


  1. I think that mom's parents meant her to go by Pearl; I don't know why they stuck the Zetta in front. It wasn't a family name--yes, I think it was. I think there may have been a Rosetta Keyes, maybe an aunt or something, who was called Zetta as a pet name. Unless I am making that up.

    Mom WANTED to give Arlene her name as a middle name but was too shy to ask her husband (!!!!--her third baby!!!) if they could name the baby after her. And then Arlene wanted to give Jenna her name as a middle name, but she was too shy to ask her husband (which is at least logical, because it was their first baby). I think they both hoped that their husband would suggest it: "Oh, why don't we name this baby after you..." that kind of thing.

    At least, that is what I think...

    1. Instead, both only have a first name, with the empty space representing their mother's name that is not there...

    2. Ah, yes. May's aunts—Ellen Rosetta Keyes and Louisa Pearl Keyes—are probably who Grandma is named after.

  2. Oh, and mom's sister who was named Zilpha (after Zilpha Zobedia Curtis) liked her name to be pronounced Zelpha, and often (or maybe always) spelled it that way. Her first daughter, Helen, was given the name Helen Zelpha, with her mother's preferred spelling.

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