Esther: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on November 29, 2012

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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