She’s a lovely, literary classic riding high atop popularity charts throughout the English-speaking world. But she’s also the product of one big ol’ misunderstanding.
Thanks to Sophie for suggesting Sophia as our Baby Name of the Day.
Sophia is the #2 baby name in the US. Add in Sofia (#26), Sophie (#59) and she’s even more popular. In fact, despite flirting with obscurity in the 1940s and 50s, Sophia is nearly as enduring as Katherine, Mary, Elizabeth, or Anne.
She’s just as portable as those evergreen appellations, but she’s a bit tougher to spot. Sophia takes a Z to become Zofia in Slavic languages. Zosia and Sonia are short forms that disguise Sophia in foreign lands.
But back to her origins: Sophia is literally the Greek word for wisdom, derived from sophos, wise, and appearing in philosophy – love of knowledge. It makes for a feminine name with a strong meaning – an unbeatable combination.
That’s the source of the error, too.
Look at a list of early martyrs and you might find Saint Sophia listed in the second century. Her story goes like this: an early Christian convert, Sophia raised three daughters: Faith, Hope, and Charity, their names inspired by St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. During the reign of Hadrian, the girls were tortured and killed for their beliefs. Sophia died of grief.
The heart-breaking story might be pure fiction: it is generally accepted that the phrase Hagia Sophia – holy wisdom – was misinterpreted. The Hagia Sophia was a basilica dedicated in the year 360 in Istanbul; it served as a Christian church for more than eleven centuries, and a mosque for five more. (Today it is a museum.) But along the way, it was assumed that the structure was dedicated to Saint Sophia – even though the name does not appear to exist much before the twelfth century.
Sophia starts to appear amongst German nobles. A pfalzgraf – sort of a high-ranking count – gave the name to his daughter in the 1100s. I’m not sure if his Sophia was the very first, but the name appears regularly afterwards, among German and Austrian nobles, and traveled to Denmark and the England. A fifteenth-century Grand Duchess of Moscow wore the name, but she’d been born a Greek princess called Zoe. There’s a steady drip of well-born girls wearing the name right up to the present day. The Countess of Wessex, daughter-in-law of the current Queen of England, was born Sophie Rhys-Jones, and the present Queen of Spain is Sofia, as is her granddaughter, Infanta Sofia of Spain.
Speaking of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria was originally called Sardica or Serdica. But the city is home to another lovely, historic church known as the Hagia Sophia. Under Ottoman rule, the place name became Sofya, and eventually Serdica and other names faded into the history books.
There are too many famous Sophias to list, but a few that come to mind include:
- Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the first women to become a doctor in the UK;
- Legendary actress Sophia Loren;
- Sofia Coppola, mom to Romy and Cosima, and director of one of my all-time favorite flicks, Marie Antoinette;
- In musical-turned-movie Mamma Mia!, the lovely young bride-to-be is Sophie.
The only reason not to use Sophia is, of course, how very popular she has rightfully become. But unlike Madison, she’s not likely to be dated in a way that disappoints – even if she does share her name with others her age.