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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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Moyrah August 27, 2013 at 4:13 AM

Thank you for giving me so much more to update about my name. I have had so many people mispronunce my name for so long, and when your young and you have to find out what your name means, it’s pretty hard. But thank you for all the information you have given on my name and I also read the comments so thank you guys too. No I do not work at this website, just another person interested in what names mean and/or a name to give. Alright bye!

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Panya December 13, 2012 at 3:19 AM

Posted this over on FB: Growing up I pronounced it as m’WYE-ruh ['why' with an /m/ at the front] — probably a mix between ‘moi’ & Ira in my young brain, but to tell the truth, say m’WYE-ruh quickly & it sounds a lot like MOY-ruh…

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MK November 21, 2012 at 2:41 PM

Oh, I’m happy you posted about this name! Maura is my mom’s name, so I have a soft spot for it. I find it infinitely prettier than Moira (pronounced “MOY-rah”) — the latter sounds so harsh! Also, in Boston, where much of my family lives, Maura is often pronounced like something closer to Mara : “MA-ruh”. I do love it and hope to incorporate it into a future child’s name, perhaps as a second middle.

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Julie November 15, 2012 at 3:28 AM

Back in my single days, Moira was one of my “fake bar names” (the other was Gretchen.) I picked Moira because of the outspoken, feminist friend in the “Handmaid’s Tale”.

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appellationmountain November 16, 2012 at 10:10 PM

Really? I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in ages, but what a great association.

Fake bar names – HA! That’s a fun idea …

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Bryony November 14, 2012 at 11:46 PM

I really like Moira! I do always think of the scene from “The Pursuit of Love”, though (apparently Nancy Mitford wasn’t a fan?)

“What are you going to call her — where is she, anyway?”
“In Sister’s room — it shrieks. Moira, I believe.”
“Not Moira, darling, you can’t. I’ve never heard such an awful name.”
“Tony likes it, he had a sister called Moira who died, and what d’you think I found out? She died because his other sister whacked her on the head with a hammer when she was four months old. Do you call that interesting? And then they say we have an uncontrolled family — why, even Father has never actually murdered anybody, or do you count that gamekeeper?”
“All the same, I don’t see how you can saddle the poor little thing with a name like Moira, it’s too unkind.”

I’ve tried to figure that one out for years — doesn’t sound anything like a terrible name to me, but maybe it was in those days? Was there some awful historical figure named Moira?

But I really like the sleekness of its sound and the Irish appeal — personally, I think a modern Moira would be really charming.

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Kyle November 14, 2012 at 7:31 PM

I just love it. I have Finnegan Quillen (b), Roarke Leslie (g) and hope to add a Moira Gray. :)

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appellationmountain November 14, 2012 at 7:39 PM

Moira Gray is gorgeous! It fits very well with your boys’ names, too.

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Kyle November 14, 2012 at 11:34 PM

Roarke is a girl, but like being a girl named Kyle before boy names for girls were cool, I hope she loves it. :)

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Lola November 14, 2012 at 7:07 PM

Moira *is* lovely, I just don’t like Maura. Maybe because I’m the similar Laura, but Maura bugs the heck out of me. Moira as Moy-Ruh or Moyr-ah sounds pretty & ladylike. Looks pretty too. All in all, I’d love to meet a Moira or six and their Mamas.

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C in DC November 14, 2012 at 5:43 PM

My MIL is Maura, but since she’s Brazilian and not Irish, she says her name something closer to mao-da (mao, rhymes with cow).

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Megalady November 14, 2012 at 1:41 PM

Moira (Moy-Ruh) is absolutely lovely. A very lady-like appellation.

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Charlotte Vera November 14, 2012 at 5:57 AM

I love Moira. I always find her sound unexpected. When I hear the name I do think of Peter Pan first (not a bad thing), although Moira was also the name of one of my roommate’s mothers when in university. She was lovely, and the name suited her.

Irish singer Enya has an older sister who also sings. Her name is Maire Brennan, and she apparently pronounces her first name MOY-yah. Actually, I believe in her latest releases she’s used an Anglicised phonetic spelling of her name.

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