Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Plath Family Baby Names

Time was if in the U.S. you heard the name "Sylvia" the next word was "Plath." U.S. Social Security baby-name stats tell us "Sylvia" was never a common name: It peaked in 1937 at #56 on the popular-name list and hit its low in 2003. Since then Hispanic families in particular are restoring "Sylvia" to the top 500 U.S. girl names. The same is true of "Aurelia," currently #371, up 117 places from 2022. "Aurelia" peaked in 1908 and hit its rock bottom in 1999 at position #2,680.

Of course Aurelia Plath, born in 1906, was named not for a fad but for her Austrian-born mother. "Sylvia" was emphatically not a family name but a conscious reference to the natural world her parents Aurelia and Otto Plath hoped to study and write books about. They also made the unusual choice to give Sylvia, born in 1932, no middle name.

That likely avoided a minefield of creaky family names. "Ernestine," Otto's mother's name, means "serious" or "battle to the death." Their fathers were Francis and Theodor; Aurelia was already Aurelia Frances. The most faddish girls' names of the 1930s were Mary, Betty, and Barbara, and Otto's name feminized is "Ottilie" -- none compatible with Sylvia's first name.

"Otto" means "wealthy" and "Emil" means "rival," "industrious," or "to excel." Sylvia as a mother-to-be considered the baby name "Emily" and hoped to name a second daughter Megan (pronounced "meg-un," she told her mother). She liked those names and "Nicholas" twenty years ahead of their mass popularity. "Frieda," Germanic for "peace" or "joy," reached its U.S. peak in 1896 -- the year Sylvia's Aunt Frieda was born in Germany -- and despite a few vogue years in the U.K. the name is currently ranked around #4,000 there and in the U.S.

We do know that Sylvia's brother Warren (meaning "protective enclosure") was named for William Marshall Warren, dean of Boston University's College of Liberal Arts, where professor Otto Plath received the dean's counsel. B.U. had several distinguished Warrens, first names and surnames. As a baby name for boys, "Warren" peaked in 1921 at #24. Surprise, it's on the rise as a gender-neutral name.

I had kind of hoped the "Ariels" I met were named for a book of poems.
Re Sylvia's fictional characters: "Esther" is Persian for "star," but compared with Queen Esther's Hebrew name "Hadassah" it grates on the ear. It's Sylvia's cousin's name. One Bell Jar oddity is that Esther Greenwood has no nickname, even among intimates such as Buddy Willard. "Esther" topped out in 1896 at #31 and sank to its low in 1970. Girls' name "Dody" ("dodo," "doughy," "dowdy") never ranked higher than in 1959 at #2,303. "Dody" seems a very un-Lawrentian name for the Lawrentian protagonist of Sylvia's first, unfinished novel, unless she was referencing "doughty" or "do-or-die."

Pop singers and prominent characters in fantasy fictions and video games are reviving old-man old-lady names, so expect more of the above to catch fire and to meet a young Sylvia soon.

"Johann" and "Ernestine" dominated Prussian baptismal records in 1853.

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