She’s an unusual avian appellation, an exotic name with a current sound.
Thanks to Leslie for suggesting Luscinia as our Baby Name of the Day.
From Homer to Shakespeare to Keats, poets have waxed lyrical about the bird.
There’s also the story of the sisters, Philomela and Procne. Accounts vary over the years, but the simplest form is this. Procne is married to King Tereus, while her younger sister Philomela is still at home in Athens. The sisters want to visit, but when Philomela comes to her sister’s home, Tereus becomes obsessed with the younger woman and forces himself on her. The sisters plot a grisly revenge, and as they flee the enraged King, pray to the gods to be turned into birds. The gods oblige, and Philomela becomes a nightingale and Procne a swallow.
The common name – nightingale – has been used for centuries and is much easier to unpack. Galon is to sing, and the nightingale sings at night.
The scientific name’s origins aren’t clear. The Latin cano - to sing – may explain the second half of the name, but there’s widespread disagreement. In any case, the term was in use as early as the first century AD. In some European languages the l became an r, hence the French rossignol.
The story of Philomel and Procne must have been well-known. In the twelfth century, Marie de France penned a poem about a love affair that ended badly.
In 1843, Hans Christian Andersen wrote his famous fairytale about an emperor who loves the song of the nightingale, so much so that he keeps one in captivity. Eventually he is presented with a mechanical replica, and he decides he prefers the artificial to the original. Many years later, the emperor is on his deathbed when his original nightingale returns. Hearing his beloved songbird, he is restored to health.
The tale is set in China, though Andersen never ventured so far East. Instead he was inspired by the decorations at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.
A second inspiration is more famous: the Swedish-born soprano Jenny Lind, nicknamed the Swedish nightingale. Andersen met her around 1840, and fell madly in love. Lind did not return his affections, and the fairytale is seen as Andersen’s lament.
The story has been adapted famously, first by Igor Stravinsky. His Le Rossignol was performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1914. It must have been quite the production – sets by Henri Matisse, choreography by Leonide Massine.
But back to Luscinia.
Census records turned up a fewer than a dozen women wearing Lusicinia as a first name, and a few more with it as a middle, including one woman namedPhilomela Luscinia.
She’s not really on the map as a given name, but why couldn’t she be?
In her favor:
- Bird names for girls have never been more stylish.
- She’s a great, unexpected way to arrive at the nickname Lulu or Lucy.
- Ends with -ia is a very popular construction for girls right now, from Sophia and Olivia to Amelia and Cecilia.
- Her literary and other artistic references are impeccable.
If you’re after an elaborately feminine name with ties to the natural world and the artistic one, it is easy to see the appeal of Luscinia.