Sephora: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on September 20, 2012

Zipporah (left) from Botticelli's Trial of Moses. Zipporah (left) from Botticelli’s Trial of Moses. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shopping for a beautiful name?

Thanks to Sarah for suggesting Sephora as our Baby Name of the Day.

Sophia is the #1 name in the US, Stephanie has been a hit,  Sarah is an enduring classic, and Seraphina is a starbaby charmer.  Sephora sounds a little bit like all of those names, but is far less known.  She’s never been in the US Top 1000, and even the brand that made her famous seems to be confused about her provenance.

If you head to the beauty brand’s website, they’ll tell you that Sephora was founded in 1970 in France by Dominique Mandonnaud.  The name was inspired by Zipporah, the wife of Moses in the Old Testament, known as a legendary beauty.  That part tracks, but the brand says that Zipporah was melded with sephos, the Greek word for beauty.

Wait, really?  Sephora is a legitimate variant of Zipporah.  Also spelled Tzipporah, she’s derived from the Hebrew word for bird: tsipor or tzippor.  This puts her in the company of avian appellations like Paloma and Wren.

Over the years, Tzipporah and Zipporah have given rise to Sephora, Seffora, and Saffurah.  Fourteen years before the French beauty retailer was founded, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments used Sephora as the name of Moses’ beautiful bride, played by a young Yvonne DeCarlo.

A handful of Sephoras appear in the 1940 and 1930 Census records, too, suggesting that Sephora has a long history of use as a personal name.

She may be most common in French.  Séphora is listed as a given name at Meilleurs Prenoms, as is Céphora.  The C spelling seems to have had a good run in Quebec, with combinations like Marie Alice Cephora and Josephine Cephora appearing in their vital records, especially in the nineteenth century, along with a few women who answered to just plain Cephora.  A portrait from 1854 Quebec shows sisters called Noémie, Eugénie, Antoinette, and Séphora.

In the US, she could be a smash hit.  Along with other Old Testament names like Keturah, they have a feminine vibe without being too delicate.  There’s a certain bite to Sephora.  She’s appropriate for a person of faith, but isn’t as overtly religious as Nevaeh.

The question is how the store’s success impacts the name.  Nancy detailed the rise of Sephora as a given name in the US.  From fewer than five girls in 1990 to a few dozen in recent years, Sephora is more common than ever.  And yet, most parents will probably associate her with the shopping mall before they think of any other origins.

This makes for a great opportunity.  If you’re devastated that Sophia is so popular, Sephora could be a great alternative if – and only if – you’re willing to say, “Oh, yes, well, the store was named after Moses’ wife.  She was a real looker.”  And you must be willing to say this dozens and dozens of times.  If you can overcome that inconvenience, you can be confident that everyone will be able to spell and pronounce your daughter’s lovely name.

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