Magnolia: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on July 17, 2014

English: magnolia

This post was originally published on March 18, 2010.  It was substantially revised and re-posted on July 17, 2014.

She’s a pretty botanical choice with appealing nickname options.

Thanks to Lyndsay for suggesting Magnolia as Name of the Day.

Back in the nineteenth century and right into the 1930s, girls named Magnolia weren’t shocking.  The name regularly appeared in the US Top 1000, which meant that it was given to a few dozen newborns annually.

As so many names do, Magnolia faded – a never-too-popular choice quietly slipping in use.

If there were ever a moment for Magnolia to make a comeback, it is now:

  • Parents are wild about nature names, from the traditional flowers to more adventurous possibilities.  If we’re naming our kids Cedar and Sky, Magnolia is a possibility.
  • That great nickname Maggie has been heard in fashionable circles – Jon Stewart’s daughter is Maggie Rose.
  • Her -ia ending is quite stylish, and Magnolia fits in with Sophia, Olivia, and Amelia.

And wouldn’t you know it?  Magnolia is back.  In 2013, she re-entered the US rankings at #977, at her most popular since 1940.

The name comes from French naturalist Pierre Magnol.  He was a teacher and director of the Royal Botanic Garden of Montpellier in the early 1700s.  His student, Charles Plumier, named the flowering tree in honor of his professor.  The name stuck, and Carl Linnaeus used it in his definitive guides to plants in the 1730s and 40s.

The surname Magnol has proven elusive, so the only meaning you’re likely to find is from the flower.

Speaking of the flower, they’re widespread, with varieties taking root from Asia to the Americas to the West Indies.

The most famous Magnolia might be Edna Ferber’s Magnolia, called Nolie, a river boat captain’s daughter and performer in her 1926 novel Show Boat.  Ferber’s novel became a Broadway musical the following year.  Today Show Boat might feel like a gentle antique, but in the 1920s, it was groundbreaking.  Showboat featured the first racially integrated cast on Broadway, and it also dealt with much weightier issues than was previously the norm for musicals.

Show Boat takes Magnolia to the American South, as does 1989’s Steel Magnolias.  The movie was all about the lives of a group of delicate-but-strong Southern ladies – including Julia Roberts in her breakout role.

Southern Living calls it “the essential Southern plant.”  Houston, Texas has been called “The Magnolia City” and Mississippi is “The Magnolia State.”  A number of gracious, historic homes bear the name throughout the American South.

In the Victorian language of flowers, magnolias were said to signify dignity, nobility, perseverance – good qualities, all.

Possible nicknames range from friendly Maggie to sassy Nola.  Meg, Nolia, and Nolie are options, too.

I’m curious how she reads in the UK, where Magnolia is a rather ordinary shade of white.

While some floral names read bold – think of Lotus or Azalea – Magnolia is rather lady-like, without sacrificing an air of resilience and capability.

Overall, Magnolia makes for a lovely antique, ready for revival.  She’s graceful and surprising, easy to wear but relatively rare – at least for now.


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