Thanks to Anne for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
In Hebrew, Alma refers to a young woman – specifically a maiden, old enough to marry, but she doesn’t have kids of her own yet. It’s typically spelled Almah. Why the specific definition?
The Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament was written in Hebrew. And so, almah refers to Mary’s status when she finds herself with child, prior to her marriage to Joseph.
If you’ve been to college, the phrase Alma Mater might spring to mind. It’s Latin for “bountiful mother.” The Latin almus means nourishing, and so the term speaks to how educational institutions feed our intellects.
The Roman goddess Ceres, the counterpart of Demeter in Greek myth, was sometimes called alma, too. Since her responsibilities include both agriculture and motherhood, the epithet makes sense.
There’s a thirteenth century Saint Almus, a Cistercian abbot in Scotland.
Names related to the Germanic amal – brave – became common during the Middle Ages, and it’s possible that Alma somehow developed from similar names. But that feels like a stretch.
Still, the saint suggests that some form of the name may have existed way back when.
THE FAERIE QUEENE
In 1590, Edmund Spenser used the name Alma for a minor character in The Faerie Queene.
She’s the mistress of a large castle who helps Arthur and Guyon.
Most of Spenser’s names were borrowed from Latin; every one of them conveyed meaning and symbolism. But Spenser almost never chose names that actual human beings were as baby girl names.
It would take a very different turn of events for the baby name Alma to go from printed page to birth certificate.
Back in 1854, Russia went to war with Great Britain and France. The first battle of the Crimean War took place in what’s now the Crimea, in the Ukraine, near the River Alma.
The British and French forces were victorious, and Alma began to appear as a patriotic name in England and France.
Among the places named in honor of the Battle of Alma: a bridge across the Seine in Paris, many streets, a pub or two. It’s a common place name throughout the US, too.
This is also when it came into use as a given name for girls and boys, especially children born to soldiers who’d fought there.
THE RIVER ALMA
In this case, children named Alma were clearly inspired by the military victory.
But where the River Alma get its name?
It comes from a Tatar word. Tatar is a Turkic language, spoken where Eastern Europe meets Asia; there’s a specific language known as Crimean Tatar, spoken in the region.
In Tatar, Alma means apple.
BOOK of ALMA
The Book of Mormon includes the Book of Alma, written by Alma the Younger. It’s the longest book. Joseph Smith first published the text in 1830.
This Alma is chief judge and prophet of the Nephites. His story includes a dramatic conversion, followed by tireless work to reform the church.
The baby name Alma has always been given to a handful of boys, from the 1880s when data is first available through the present days. Odds are that this explains at least some of the name’s unisex appeal.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Vienna-born socialite Alma Schindler married the composer Gustav Mahler.
She was a composer in her own right. After her husband’s death she married architect Walter Gropius; and then later, the Prague-born writer, Franz Werfel. The couple were forced to leave Vienna for France ahead of the Nazis, and eventually settled in Los Angeles.
Alma is remembered for hosting artists’ salons in both Vienna and in their new home in California, and then later in New York City. She remains a fascinating figure, still revisited in history and art.
In the twenty-first century, though, there’s only one meaning that matters for the baby name Alma: soul.
It’s literally the Spanish word for soul.
Sometimes word names aren’t used in their native language, but that doesn’t apply here.
It makes the Spanish-language version of Baby Center’s Top 100 list.
Decades earlier, the write Tennessee Williams favored the name. He expressly connected Alma and the meaning soul in 1948’s Summer and Smoke, Alma Winemiller starts out the story as a minister’s daughter. While it’s not Williams’ best-known play, it continues to be revived today.
Contemporary figures like celebrity blogger Perez Hilton have chosen the name for their children. Hilton was born in Miami to Cuban parents, and speaks Spanish. When he welcomed his second daughter, he explained that her name, Mia Alma, means “my soul.”
So not only is the linguistic connection clear, but it’s broadly known.
BY the NUMBERS
The baby name Alma ranked in the US Top 100 from the late 1800s, when data was first compiled, into the 1920s.
That makes Alma a vintage gem, at home with Bertha and Gertrude, but also Mabel and Josephine.
It slipped in use after than, languishing in the 400s during the 1980s and 90s.
By 2011, the baby name Alma reached an all-time low ranking of #875 in the US.
While the baby name Alma remains in use across many European languages, and has never left the US Top 1000, it spent decades living mostly in our imaginations.
It was a pitch perfect choice for the tragic young woman in the 1979 story turned 1981 film Ghost Story.
And it was equally suitable for a character in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. Michelle Williams played Alma. Her daughter with Ennis, also named Alma, plays a pivotal role in the story’s end. The older character would have been born in the 1940s.
Television series from Desperate Housewives to The Wire to Deadwood to Doc McStuffins all used the name.
Alma Coin appears in the Hunger Games series as a ruthless leader of the rebellion.
2005 novel The History of Love by Nicole Krauss uses the name for not one, but two, significant characters.
It’s the given name of Alma LeFay Peregrine, the headmistress in Ransome Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Pecular Children. The bestesller kicked off a series of books, as well as a film adaptation.
While there are many different meanings parents might find for the baby name Alma, the name’s popularity with Spanish speakers suggests that it’s connection to the word soul is most significant now.
A 2018 children’s picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name, might have helped.
And, of course, Alma Madrigal is the matriarch at the heart of 2021’s Encanto.
STYLISH and SOULFUL
Similar names like Mila and Cora share Alma’s brief, vintage style. And, of course, many names feel fresh and new again a century after they last peaked.
No surprise that Alma has gained in use, reaching #511 in the US as of 2021.
But will it climb higher?
Given the powerful meaning and stylish sound, Alma is the kind of first name many parents seek for their daughters. For now, it’s an under-the-radar choice that works across many languages and cultures, but feels significant and richly appealing in them all.
What do you think of the baby name Alma?
This post was first published on September 1, 2015 and revised on March 28, 2023.