Fiona hits the sweet spot, a literary invention with an appealing sound and a fun pop culture connection.
Thanks to Melissa for suggesting Fiona as our Baby Name of the Day.
Fiona: Literary Invention
Back in the eighteenth century, James Macpherson claimed he’d discovered and interpreted a collection of old legends. He created a wildly popular series of writings, starting with Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language. Despite the ring of authenticity, evidence suggests that Macpherson invented much of it.
Debates about the stories’ origins raged, even as Macpherson’s work became an international sensation, widely read and translated into most European tongues.
One of the names he probably invented for his tales? Fiona.
Fiona: Finn’s Sister
Macpherson built on existing lore, of course. He borrowed Irish hero Finn McCool for his writings. Finn comes from the word fionn – fair. It’s possible that Fiona serves as a feminine form of the name.
It’s not a crazy stretch. Irish myth gives us Fionnuala, “white shoulder.” We Anglicize it as Finola or Fenella, but it connects to these names, too.
So even if Macpherson was the first to use this exact name, it seems fair to call it Irish. Or at least Irishish.
Fiona: Brigadoon and Bond Girl
Despite the success of Macpherson’s writings, Fiona didn’t catch on. At least not immediately. While we can find a few in the US Census records earlier, it’s not until 1942 that it cracks the US Social Security Administration data set, with nine births.
It took until 1990 for the name to make the US Top 1000.
Musical Brigadoon gives the name to a resident of a mysterious, unchanging Scottish village that appears to outsiders for only one day every century. Two visitors from New York stumble upon the village, and set events in motion. The musical debuted in 1947, with a film adaptation ten years later, and a television movie in the 1960s.
In 1965’s Thunderball, James Bond faced a glamorous assassin named Fiona Volpe. Things end badly for Volpe, of course. Incidentally, the character didn’t appear in the 1961 novel; she was invented for the film.
Then came Colleen McCullough’s bestselling novel, The Thorn Birds. A family drama spanning the 1910s to the 1960s, Fiona “Fee” Cleary is the mother of the main character.
Despite these uses, the name remained under the radar into the 1980s.
Fiona: From The Giver to Shrek
By the 1990s, the name was on the rise. It’s one of the ahead-of-curve character names in Lois Lowry’s celebrated 1993 young adult novel The Giver. (There’s also an Asher!)
British romcom Four Weddings and a Funeral includes an aristocratic Fiona. That tracks – the name was long more popular in the UK than the US.
Singer Fiona Apple burst on to the scene around the same time, earning a Grammy for her first hit song, “Criminal.”
Then came 2001’s Shrek.
Like any respectable fairytale, there’s a princess. But this one had a secret: by night, she turned into an ogre. Only true love’s kiss can restore her permanently to her true form. When she marries the ogre Shrek, it turns out that she’s meant to be an ogress. She goes green full-time and they live happily ever after. Or, at least as happily as the continuing Shrek saga will permit.
No surprise the name rose from #460 in 2000 to #258 in 2010, and #181 in 2017.
Fiona: Sweet Spot
I’d call this a sweet spot name – everybody recognizes it, but it’s far from overused. It makes a great alternative to Sophia. It feels vaguely Irish or English, and it brings to mind all sorts of pop culture references, but it’s tough to pigeon hole. The name carries plenty of contradictions: it’s an unconventional princess name, a name that feels borrowed from myth and legend but is really rather modern.
Overall, I think it’s one of those gems that we all love to hear – but seldom think to use!
What do you think of Fiona? Would you consider the name for a daughter?
First published on January 25, 2012, this post was revised substantially and re-posted on September 5, 2018.