Baby Name of the Day: Portia

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.

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21 Comments

As a Shakespearean name, I’m sure Portia was meant more for the Port/Harbor meaning rather than the Pig/Pork meaning. Part of the plot in Merchant of Venice involves ships being lost at sea. The symbolism HAS to be intentional. The pig meaning almost can’t make sense. She’s so beautiful her suitors include princes!

Granted, the Portia from Julius Caesar depicts the historical figure (whose Roman family name originally meant Pig). But I’m guessing parents aren’t looking to name their daughters after the Julius Caesar Portia, whose life ends tragically…

I guess my point is the pig/pork connection shouldn’t bother anyone.

Now that is a fascinating observation, C, and it really does help rescue Portia. With Admission hitting the big screen, I think this one could see a bump … Thanks!

Funny to read everyone’s comments on the name Portia. I am a Portia (spelt with the tia). I sometimes get called por-tee-ah, but as people have learnt the pronunciation from Portia De Rossi that has gotten better!
I have always been unsure if I liked my name or not. I do like that it is a different name, and people do often compliment me on it. I’m sure in the next 20 years or so it won’t be so uncommon, and then I will be old school Portia (I’m 30 now).

I love the name Portia. As you can tell it’s my name. lol. But when my grandmother named me from the novel The Merchant of Venice, she changed the spelling to Porshia to make it softer and less traditional because she didn’t like the Portia spelling. I am twenty and have had no problems with it. i always receive name compliments. I kinda wish it wasn’t my name though… Only so i could name my daughter it though.. lol.

For some reason, this name has never rubbed me the right way. The “Port” part makes me think of Port-a-Potty. Juvenile, I know, but I bet some other juveniles would make the connection.

Portia is my second favorite Shakespearean name (behind Cordelia) and I think it’s beautiful. I didn’t know about the pig connection until now, and it doesn’t bother me that much. Most people wouldn’t get it, anyway. My dad ‘s a car nut, and his dream car is a Porshe 911, so having a grand-daughter named Portia would honor him as well. I really like this name. I would totally use it!

I have never cared for Portia myself, but one of my biggest guilty pleasure is Porsche. Cars are a big passion of my husband’s and mine, so there are a lot of automobile-related names on our favorites’ list. We love names like Porsche, Chevelle, Mercedes, Shelby, Ford, Denali, Opel, and so on and so on. It’s a bad guilty pleasure, I know, but that’s why they’re called such, right?

I don’t think pork, I think tall blond b/c of de Rossi. And the sports car of different spelling. I do not mind the name, but it’s not one for me.

I can’t get past the porcine comparisons either; plus I sometimes find myself wanting to add an “ns” to the end of the name (“portions”). It’s too bad, because Shakespeare’s Portia is really quite a marvelous character.

I always want to like Portia, but I think it seems like a round kind of name. Perhaps from the porcine roots? I don’t know. That big “or” sound is what does it in, I think.

Nicknames could be Pia, Tia, Port or even Pat if you’re desperate (and crazy). I find that no name is truly ever nickname-proof. 😉

So include me on Team Switzerland. I want to like it more than I do, but I’m not at all a hater.

I’m with you on the nns, Bek! When a name is declared nn proof, I take it as a challenge! Although, I admit many one syllable names are difficult to nn w/o stretching things, but add the second syllable and there just *has* to be an option!

Even Joy is not nickname proof! I was teased with Doy and Joy is a Boy. The nickname everyone tries is JJ, since my last name is Jennings.

Nicknames emerge, even for nickname-proof names. As babies, my niece Brooke became Brooksie and Grant was often G-man, G-G or Boo.

I agree with you, Joy, but many of the names you mention are not really nns (Boy and Doy are not nns for Joy, at least not for most people!) On the other hand, G-man is a nn and undeniably cute (IMO) and inspired by the name Grant, it’s not a nn entirely taken from the name itself… it’s individual, which is wonderful, but generally not something that most kids called Grant would be called. I guess, when I say that one-syllable names are more difficult without a stretch (and this is not to say all of them), I am sticking with names that could be offered up as a nn for just about any baby that is given that name. My name is Jade and I had plenty of tease ‘nns’ and ‘invented nns’ but they were not names that you’d suggest for a mom considering naming her baby Jade (e.g., “How about Spadeling?” Um, no. I didn’t mind it, but it’s probably not for most Jades). That said, Joy and Jade could always go by J or JJ, but then ANY name beginning with J could be that. I’m called Jadee as an endearment on occasion, and that could be a nn for Jade. But the pickin’s are slim(mer) on the single-syllable names.

I want to like Portia, I really do, but whenever I think back to the meaning, I just think of bacon. No thanks. Maybe a nice name for a pet pig.

I know a Portia who is in her 40s. Her one sister is Ivy & I can’t remember the other. It’s not a bad name & I can understand the appeal, but it’s one of the FEW ‘P’ names that I don’t go for. I’m neutral about it.

What always confuses me is when I see parents use Porsche — are they saying it as ‘porsh’ or do they not know of Portia,or if they do know of Portia & are saying it the same, do they think Porsche is easier to say or seems ‘edgier’? For years I said the car as ‘porsh’ & still mainly do.

I must be honest, I’d much rather see Portia as the new Ava instead of Stella. I think it’s interesting that compare it to Ava & Sophia .I can get the reference & why they’d have similar vibes. I’m fussy with ‘ah’ sounds, so maybe that’s why Portia isn’t shezamming for me. Ironically, I really don’t like Ava/Stella/Sophie, but I don’t mind Portia. I’m Switzerland for Portia

Thanks for doing this as NOTD 🙂 Great job as always, Abby

Sorry, typo. I meant Ava/Stella/SophiA – not SophIE. I really like Sophie, but not Sophia. No offense meant to any fans of those names or bearers of those names. I am in the minority in my opinion.