Esther: Baby Name of the Day

Cropped screenshot of Esther Williams from the...

Cropped screenshot of Esther Williams from the trailer for the film Million Dollar Mermaid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s a legendary queen, an early twentieth century favorite poised for a comeback.  How can it be that I’ve never written about her!?

Thanks to Fran for suggesting Esther as our Baby Name of the Day.

This lovely name has a distinctive sound, and many a possible meaning:

  • The most frequently cited meaning is star, from the Persian setareh.
  • Or is she from the goddess Ishtar?  On sound alone, it seems plausible.  Plus Jews in exile were sometimes given names related to Babylonian gods.
  • Esther was born Jewish and keeping it quiet.  Her original name was Hadassah.  In Biblical Hebrew the word lehastir meant to hide.
  • One last possibility: Hadassah means myrtle – Esther could share the meaning.

The Biblical Esther was orphaned at a young age, and raised by her cousin, Mordecai.  King Ahasuerus had put aside his first wife, and ordered all of the kingdom’s eligible women to come to the palace for consideration.  The beautiful young Esther was chosen as her successor.

The politics of the time were dangerous.  Esther and Mordecai helped thwart an assassination plot against the king.  Not long after, a Persian prince conspired to kill all of the Jews in the realm.  The prince appealed to the king for approval of his plan.  Esther risked all to divulge the plan to the king, admitting her own heritage, and ultimately swaying the king’s decision in favor of the Jewish people.  Her triumph is commemorated with the feast of Purim.

In English, Esther wasn’t in use until after the Reformation.  By 1882, she ranked in the US Top 100.  The next year, then-US president Grover Cleveland welcomed a daughter named Esther.  By 1894, the name climbed to #39, and peaked at #27 in 1896.

Esther remained in the US Top 100 until 1935, time for many a notable to wear the name:

  • Writer Esther Forbes won the Newberry Medal for Johnny Tremain.
  • In 1944, Judy Garland starred as Esther in the MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis.  She’d wear the name again in 1954’s A Star is Born, though her character would become Vicki Lester.
  • Champion swimmer Esther Williams went on to become a successful MGM star in the 194os and 50s, often appearing in elaborately staged swimming scenes called aquamusicals.
  • Esther “Eppie” Lederer wrote the Ask Ann Landers advice column for nearly fifty years.
  • The main character in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is named Esther.
  • Singer Esther Phillips – originally known as Little Esther – had a string of hits in the 1950s, and comebacks in the 1960s and 70s, too.

For years, Esther languished in style limbo, reaching a low point in the 1970s.  But lately Esther has been on the upswing:

  • Ewan McGregor welcomed daughter Esther Rose in 2001.
  • Madonna is one of many celebrities associated with the Kabbalah Centre, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit teaching the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah with something of a New Age spin.  It is widely reported that Madonna is known as Esther in her studies.

The numbers also argue that Esther is making a comeback.  She’s climbed gradually in recent years, reaching #236 in 2011.  Esther splits the difference between modern favorites like Harperand sweetly vintage choices like Clara.

If you’re after a strong, frills-free name for a daughter, she’s one to consider.

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  1. Panya says

    I desperately want to like Esther, the meaning, people, stories, history & worldwide appeal of this name are perfect — but I just can’t bring myself to like the sound. :-(

  2. Leith says

    I’m a new reader within the last month or so, and I’ve been LOVING having a new name to ponder each day! I’ve been interested in names since I was very small probably because my own given name is so unusual (officially I’m Mary Leith, but I have always ALWAYS been called just Leith). I’d love to see Leith featured as a name of the day at some point! Thanks for the interesting daily read. :)

  3. Julie says

    I adore Esther and her Lovely, nearly identical sister Hester… but they sound really silly with my surname.
    So, if you’re considering the lovely Esther… do it, please!

    As far a nicknames for Esther, an old classmate of Eldest Stepkid was nicknamed Etta.

  4. SilentOne says

    Esther was a favorite of mine for years but it’s lost its freshness because I thought about it so much. Hearing it on a real child instead of just in my mind would probably do a lot to restore the shine, though.

  5. Emily says

    Esther is my main character’s name in the project I’ve been working on for over a year now… She went through many name changes, not to mention major alterations, but Esther nn Essie is definitely her name! Esther fits her because it’s a strong, feminine, and serious name with a lovely Biblical namesake AND… the nickname Essie is just so fun and adorable.

  6. Kristin says

    I love Esther. My first thoughts (after the Biblical figure) are Judy Garland’s character in Meet Me In St. Louis and Esther Williams. I would love to hear more of it!

  7. Charlotte Vera says

    Mark has suggested Esther with every pregnancy. I always say “no” because, to me, it’s as familiar as Amy or Jennifer. Esther was a fairly common name amongst some of the South Indian community in which I grew up. It’s also heard quite a bit in the North American Korean community, so we met quite a few when working in the community for a couple of years.

    It’s pretty, but I prefer the more obscure Hester. Or even rarely-heard Hadassah.

    • Charlotte Vera says

      Perhaps I should also add that a friend (in India) who had her daughter the same month I gave birth to Roseanna named her baby Esther. So. . .it continues to be pretty but familiar.

  8. Jordanna says

    Before Estée Lauder’s name grew aspirational accent marks, she was called Esty, short for Esther. I know a few Esthers called either Essie or Estee said ess-tee.

    For a long time it was too auntie/sleepy for me. It’s not exactly remarkable in Jewish families. I have come around on it though, probably partially because my (not-Jewish) husband likes it so much – to him its an exotic import, he brought it up to me cautiously as this interesting name he’d heard of, and I think in my shock I originally laughed, (its fair, he did the same thing to me in reverse about Deirdre) but I’ve come around. The only bad word I’ve heard against it from Australians is that it’s uncommon and that maybe it ought to be spelled Ester.

    • says

      I had a friend in high school who was from a devoutly Christian family and red the Bible quite a bit. She really liked the name Esther. Back then, I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, but I like Esty, and I could come around.

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