Jessica reached #1 in the 1980s. Juliet is gaining today. Why has this Shakespearean heroine been overlooked?
Thanks to Urban Angel for suggesting Portia as Baby Name of the Day.
Okay, Portia has not been entirely neglected. She peaked at #607 in 1950. About 1,200 Portias were born in the 1940s – nothing compared to the nearly 640,000 girls called Mary and nearly half a million named Linda, but that’s still not none.
And unlike Jessica or Imogen or even Juliet, William Shakespeare can’t take credit for Portia. He plucked her from history. Before his wise Portia set foot in a courtroom, Portia was an Ancient Roman appellation.
The most famous Portia married Brutus, as in Julius Ceasar’s assassin, the one who lent his name to that literary phrase of betrayal, “Et tu Brute?” Legend has it that she swallowed hot coals to end her life.
An even older spelling is Porcia and the original masculine version, Porcius. This is a bit of a problem, as the name edges ever closer to its porcine roots. Portia relates not a port, but to the humble pig. The Latin porcus is also the source of our word for pork. Too bad – the Latin portus would make for a far more meaningful appellation. But it just isn’t so.
Switching the spelling from Porcia to Portia also sidesteps the possibility that a student of Latin will refer to your darling daughter as PORE kee ah. Strictly speaking, that’s the correct pronunciation of the -cia spelling. (Though in our era of Tricia and Alicia, you’re unlikely to hear it.) Portia is undeniably said POR shah, and is sometimes even given the phonetic spelling Porsha – though that moves her quite close to the German racing car, the Porsche.
But back to the Bard, and to his brilliant, gracious heroine. The Merchant of Venice may be a romantic comedy, but much of the tale is heavy. Portia dresses up as an apprentice attorney and successfully frees Antonio, though she gets him off on a technicality.
It’s a plum role, one played by many a talented actress. The first film adaptation was 1914 – appropriately, Portia was played by Lois Weber, who also made her directorial debut, becoming the first woman to direct a feature film.
In 1940, Portia Faces Life debuted on the radio. Portia was a lawyer, fighting for justice in a small town. The tale of a career woman must have resonated – the 1940s would mark the heights of Portia’s popularity in the US.
In recent years, we’ve seen much of Portia on television, thanks to talented actress Portia de Rossi. She’s gone from Aly McBeal to Arrested Development to Better Off Ted. Born Amanda, she took her stage name in homage to the literary figure. But hasn’t encouraged use of the name.
Portia Simpson-Miller was Jamaica’s first female prime minister. There’s also a genus of crafty hunting spiders, and a moon of Uranus wearing the name.
She’s nickname-proof, feminine and brainy all at once. Portia would fit right in with favorites like Ava and Sophia, but she’d still stand out.