Thanks to 123 for suggesting Amber as our Baby Name of the Day.
Amber isn’t exactly a stone like opal or jade.
A science detour: trees secrete resins, liquids we’ve found useful for eons. Frankincense and myrrh are tree resins. So are certain varnishes, and coatings for violin strings.
When certain resins hardens, amber is the result. Insects and leaves are sometimes trapped. I’m not fond of amber avec bug, but it makes for a contribution to the fossil record.
It’s most abundant in the Baltic, and trade routes connecting the area to the rest of Europe were well established by the time Ancient Egypt and Rome flourished. Entire towns existed to serve the trade.
The Greeks knew it as elektron, and associated it with the sun god Helios. There’s a story that when Helios’ son Phaeton died, his sisters became trees, and the girls cried amber.
In Arabic, the word was anbar. The Crusaders brought the word back from the East. It became ambre in Old French, and eventually amber in English.
Originally, amber referred to the waxy secretions of a sperm whale – stinky, dull grey stuff used to make perfume. The waxy chunks washed up on the shoreline, just like the golden bits – perhaps that’s how they came to share a name. Today we know the whale byproduct as ambergris – grey amber.
What prompted her use as a given name?
There’s a scandalous novel, but let’s visit a palace first.
In the early 1700s, a Prussian king set out to construct an entire room of amber. The panels were eventually gifted to the Russian tsar and installed in the Catherine Palace outside of St. Petersburg. The Nazis looted it, along with many other works of art, and lost the panels, possibly sunk on a ship or destroyed in a fire. It’s a mystery that has sparked headlines ever since the war’s end – though I don’t think it gets credit for the name’s popularity.
Amber had come into sparing use as a girls’ name as early as the nineteenth century, but it is Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 novel Forever Amber that put her on the map.
Winsor’s story takes place in 1600s Restoration England. Amber St. Clare was a beautiful, ambitious young woman who used her feminine wiles to make her way to the top. The character gets her unusual name from her eye color.
It was condemned as indecent and banned in many places – all of which contributed to the book’s near-instant bestseller status. In 1947, it became a movie.
As a given name, Amber was on the rise by 1945, and in 1962, she entered the US Top 500, and the Top 100 in 1974. She probably owes something to Amy and Amanda, and likely to Jennifer and Heather, too, as -er had become an acceptable ending for girls’ names.
From 1981 through 1993, Amber was a Top 20 pick, meaning that famous Ambers abound, like actresses Tamblyn, Valletta, and Glee’s Riley, plus fictional characters like the villainous blonde Amber von Tussle from Hairspray and The Young and the Restless’ Amber Moore.
There’s also the elaborated Amberly.
In recent years, Amber is falling fast – at #260 in 2012. It’s hard to call her current nowadays, but just as we’ve embraced Pearl and Ruby in recent years, it is easy to imagine Amber making a comeback … eventually.