Baby Name of the Day: Astoria

by appellationmountain on April 29, 2013

Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Thirty-Fourth Street an... Waldorf Astoria Hotel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on August 24, 2011.  It was revised and re-posted on April 29, 2013.

Babies are named Brooklyn. Why not this pretty place name also borrowed from the Big Apple?

Thanks to Virginia for suggesting Astoria as our Baby Name of the Day.

John Jacob Astor came to the United States from Germany by way of England in 1784. He became a fur trader, and with the assistance of his shrewd wife Sarah, the Astors quickly amassed a fortune. They expanded their business, and eventually invested in Manhattan real estate.

You’d expect to find his name dotting the New York landscape. But his investment in Hallett’s Cove – a vacation retreat for the well-to-do on Queens – was modest, barely enough to justify a name change. And yet the residents did rename their settlement Astoria. Apparently, he never even visited.

Today Astoria is a fascinating, vibrant, and diverse place, but it is not exactly upscale. Steinway made some of their first pianos there. It is home to the Museum of the Moving Image, a tribute to Astoria’s roots as a center of the American film industry, pre-Hollywood. Valentino and the Marx Brothers made movies on 36th Street.

The luxury link isn’t completely gone from this name, of course. The Waldorf=Astoria persists, a grand hotel dating to the 1890s, initially developed by two Astor descendants, with plenty of tangles and family intrigue behind the construction.

A few other Astorias dot the map, including a town in Oregon considered the oldest US settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Originally established as Fort Astoria by members of the Pacific Fur Company, the place name was inspired by company owner John Jacob Astor.

So where did the surname come from? Apparently, in Occitan – a medieval Romance language that developed near the borders of France, Spain, and Italy – astor means hawk, specifically a goshawk. Confirming this has been tricky – Occitan doesn’t have one standard form. But Astor’s family was from Savoy, part of the area where Occitan and associated dialects flourished. His family ended up in Germany thanks to their religious convictions – they were part of a movement called the Waldensians after twelfth century founder Peter Waldo. Persecution made them mobile – and made America a very welcoming home for the ambitious John Jacob Astor.

A few figures have worn the name in recent years:

  • Muppet judge Waldorf has a sometimes-seen wife called Astoria;
  • Terry Pratchett gave the name to his Ephebian goddess of love in his Discworld universe;
  • At the end of the Harry Potter series, we see that a grown-up Draco Malfoy has married Astoria Greengrass.

Astoria sounds like popular girls’ ends-with-ia choices Amelia and Olivia. Plus she is sometimes suggested as a formal name for Story, sort of like the Rory/Aurora connection. There’s no etymological link whatsoever, but the sounds make it an option. Tori is another possibility. Another bonus: Astoria sounds like she could be a vintage antique, but she’s actually a relatively modern invention.

It’s an unconventional choice, but with Astoria’s pretty, current sound, she’s an option for parents who love feminine choices, but want something truly unusual, too.

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