Moira: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on November 14, 2012

1984 Weathervane 1984 Weathervane by TooFarNorth via Flickr

She’s yet another spin on the evergreen Mary.

Thanks to Kyle for suggesting Moira as our Baby Name of the Day.

Mary became Máire among Irish families, probably via the French Marie.  Like many an Irish name, there’s debate over pronunciation.  I’ve come across MOY yah, MAW yah, MAW rah, MY rah, and even MAY ree, though I think that last one is probably a novel American interpretation.  In any case, pronunciation seems to have varied over place and time.

She was Anglicized as Moira, and is usually pronounced phonetically – MOY rah.  Except that sometimes she was Maura instead, with a different sound.

Incidentally, Maura is also considered a feminine form of early saint’s name Maurus.  Occasionally you’ll meet a Moira who pronounces it more like Maura … making the whole thing complicated.

But wait – there’s more.  In Ancient Greek mythology, the Three Fates were known as the Moirai.  Moira means portion or part, but is also related to the word moros - fate, and links to our word merit.  You could argue that Moira implies a proper share, a sense of order in the universe, that one gets what one deserves – making her something of a virtue name, a sister to Destiny.

The Three Fates are usually named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, but not always.  Homer treated Moira as a minor deity, the personification of Fate.

Between associations with the Virgin Mary and the classical idea of man’s fate, that’s quite a lot of meaning for a two-syllable name.

My first instinct was that Moira was popular in the 1920s or 30s, but it isn’t so.  Instead, she’s astonishingly rare.  Moira first appeared in the US Top 1000 in 1955, and hovered on the edge of the rankings until 1968.  At that point, she disappeared, and has remained rare ever since.

Maura has been slightly more successful, ranking in the Top 1000 from the 1940s through 2006, possibly boosted by her similarity to Laura.

What explains Moira’s brief rise in popularity?  The most likely explanation is Moira Shearer, a Scottish ballerina whose career began in the early 1940s.  In 1948 she starred in The Red Shoes, possibly the best known ballet flick until The Black Swan.  Moira’s acting and dancing careers continued into the 1950s.  In Ireland and Scotland, Moira had a good run, peaking around the time Ms. Shearer made her big screen debut.

Besides Ms. Shearer, you might recognize Moira as:

  • Part of Wendy Darling’s full name: Wendy Moira Angela Darling, from Peter Pan.  But we know that J.M. Barrie had a streak of inventive namer in him.
  • Ava Gardner played Moira in the 1959 post-apocalyptic flick On the Beach, adapted from a Nevil Shute novel.
  • Actress Moira Kelly, known for her roles in The Cutting Edge and The West Wing.
  • The cast of the X-Men includes a geneticist – or sometimes a CIA agent – called Dr. Moira MacTaggert.
  • A character on The L Word is named Moira Sweeney, but she’s better known as Max.

She’s also used in Spanish, at least occasionally.

I suspect she’s not quite ready for revival in the UK and other parts of the English-speaking world where she’s more likely to be the grandmother instead of the granddaughter.  But in the US, Moira could make for an interesting Irish heritage choice.  If Maeve isn’t quite for you, how about Moira?

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