Sarah is a sensible name, worn by the perpetual good girl, found in enduring young adult novels . But the Biblical original started out as a far more glamorous appellation.
Thanks to Heather for suggesting the shimmering Sarai as our Baby Name of the Day.
Plenty of Biblical choices have changed over the centuries, morphing into forms almost unrecognizable from the original. Both James and Jacob share the same root, and there are more than a few families than include a Jim and a Jake without confusion.
Sarai and Sarah were worn by the same woman, but they may be two distinct names. Just like Paul the Apostle started out life as Saul, Sarah was born Sarai.
Flip open to Genesis to read her story. Sarai was beautiful, so much so that she drove men mad. Her husband Abraham despaired when they couldn’t have children. And then a miracle happened – even though Sarai was well past child-bearing years, the couple had a son, Isaac.
The pronunciation changes, too, from SAHR ah to sah RYE.
You’ll often find Sarai’s meaning given as princess, just like Sarah. But there’s some suggestion that she comes from a similar-sounding name with a different meaning: contentious. Given the amount of angsting Abraham did over her good looks – which landed her in the pharaoh’s harem at one point – it is not an unreasonable choice. Of course, Abraham had his faults, too. He went ahead and had a son with Hagar, his wife’s maid. Various religious leaders have read a lot into the name change from the contentious Sarai to the regal Sarah, a change that was part of the fulfillment of God’s covenant and Isaac’s miraculous birth.
If all that puts you off, another use might appeal. Sarai was the name of the capital city of the Mongol Empire in the 1200s and 1300s. There were actually two cities – Old Sarai and New Sarai. The name is thought to derive from a Persian word meaning palace, inn, or home, which may relate to the word sarar – to rule. It was once a major metropolis, but by the 1500s, it was gone.
Speaking of gone, Sarai has been little used over the generations. She appears in US Census records but never cracked the Top 1000 until the 1980s. She reached #399 in 2009, just a few paces off from her peak of #397 in 2007.
Sarah, on the other hand, is evergreen. You could meet a Sarah in Medieval England or Colonial America. She occupied the US Top Ten from 1978 through 2002, and stood at #21 in 2009. The sans-h Sara has always lagged a few steps behind, charting at #109 in 2009.
The only notable Sarai my searches turned up strikes me as rapper Barbie. You can check out her video here or read her profile at VH-1.
All of this makes Sarai an appealing options for parents seeking something exotic, but not extreme. Just like sweet Sarah, a little Sarai could answer to Sari or Sary. She’s simple, complete, and glamorous without being too much for a real girl.
Emmy Jo says
Sarai is beautiful, and I like it far better than Sarah, but it often feels a little bit strange to use the “pre-conversion” name of a biblical character. Usually in the Bible when God renames a person, it signifies the person has undergone a significant change for the better (e.g., began following God instead of persecuting Christians, as was the case with Saul/Paul, or began having faith in one of God’s promises, as is the case with Abram/Abraham). If the names we choose for our children are supposed to somehow express our hopes and aspirations for them, what does it mean to call a child Saul (the persecutor) or Sarai (“contentious”) instead of Paul or Sarah?
That being said, though, Jacob is a FAR more common name than Israel (the name Jacob was given after he wrestled with God). It’s certainly not a hard-and-fast rule. But those who balk at calling a child Cain or Delilah might also balk at Saul, Sarai, or even Abram.
That’s really interesting — I never thought about it that way. As an adult who practices a different religion than the one in which I was raised, all of the first names on my short list are deliberately non-religious. I want my children to be able to choose their own religion, as I did, and not feel uncomfortable about their names should they convert/change their minds later. 🙂
Sarah A says
Well said Emmy Jo, I completely agree.
I really prefer my own name to names like Sarai, Saira, etc. precisely because it’s so evergreen. Sarai is beautiful, but if I were ever vain enough to name a child after myself, I’d go with Zara 🙂
I agree, Emmy Jo. But I think a lot of people don’t even really think about the story anymore. Just the name. Either “Oh, that’s in the Bible. Perfect, let’s use it” or with complete disregard for it being anything more than a nice name.
That said, I find Sarai always sits awkwardly in my mouth. I love the simple beauty of Sarah, particularly in the middle name position. It somehow seems more unexpected there.
Laura Rose says
I like Sarai. My aunt’s name is Sara, though, so I’d never use it. I think I like Sarah and Soraya a bit better, but it’s still very pretty.
Charlotte Vera says
While I’ve never been a huge fan of Sarah, I’ve always preferred it to Sarai, which somehow seems awkward and choppy to me. I much prefer the longer Saraya (and its variant spellings). Sarai ends so abruptly and sounds like an off pronunciation of either sari or sorry — or a mumbled, “Sir, I. . .”
I really like Sarai. She has an exotic, yet tailored feel. Many exotic names can feel a bit over the top, but not Sarai.
I like Sarah, but I’ve always preferred the sound of Sarai.
C in DC says
I like the unrelated Saraia (sa RYE a) or Soraya.
This would be a great way to use a Sar name without the more popular Sarah.
I wonder if you could still do Sadie and Sally with Sarai?
I can’t see why not. Sally is really growing on me!
I like Sarai! When I was a Catholic school kid, I remember wondering *why* she had to change *her* name to boring Sarah, Abraham didn’t! I’ve liked Sarai at least since then. I’ve found my family dislikes the ‘sah’ sound in general, so no Sarai for me. (No Sara(h) (i) for anyone else, either). But I do like both Sarai’s looks and sound. I wish I’d meet a few of them at least, she’s so pretty!
His name was changed too, from Abram to Abraham, when he was circumcised. [Genesis 17:5 – Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.]
My thought has always been that the “contentious” meaning had to do with Sarai’s treatment of Hagar. Since after Sarai told Abram to get Hagar pregnant, Sarai and Hagar didn’t get along. [Genesis 16:2, 5-6 – And Sarai said unto Abram: ‘Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing; go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; it may be that I shall be builded up through her.’ And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. … And Sarai said unto Abram: ‘My wrong be upon thee: I gave my handmaid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee.’ But Abram said unto Sarai: ‘Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her that which is good in thine eyes.’ And Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her face.]
Then, her name was changed to the “princess” meaning because she was becoming a ‘mother of kings.’ [Genesis 17:15-16 – And God said unto Abraham: ‘As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and moreover I will give thee a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.’]
Thanks for that Panya! It’s been almost 30 years since I’ve been to church or read the Bible, so my memory’s a bit off, apparently!
It’s one of those stories that feels both incredibly ancient and inaccessible and painfully modern at once. Thank you for the quotes!