She’s an Old Testament appellation with a modern sound.
Thanks to Charlotte for suggesting Tirzah as our Baby Name of the Day.
Is there any doubt that Agatha Christie was a name nerd? Sure, she had oodles of characters to name. And some, like the towering Hercule Poirot, demand a larger-than-life choice. But she was thoughtful about even minor figures, and in real life, named her only child Rosalind. There’s even a thread featuring her character names on Nameberry. I mention Ms. Christie because Charlotte originally asked about Thyrza, which is a Dutch version of Tirzah – a name from The Pale Horse, one of those famous mysteries.
But how do you pronounce Tirzah? I suspect some of it is regional, but I’ve heard everything from teer zah to teer tsah to teer shah. I suspect that the first one is most comfortable for most English speakers, though I’ll admit that the middle one strikes me as very pretty.
Christie’s fictional Thyrza was a witch, or at least was willing to play at the dark arts to cover up murder for hire. The original Tirzah was an Old Testament figure, the youngest of Zelophehad’s five daughters – Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, and Milcah. Back in the day, women couldn’t inherit, but Zelophehad had no sons. The girls appealed to Moses, and while they had to promise not to marry outside of their tribe, they were able to inherit their father’s property. I rather like that story.
The name has a nice meaning, too – delight. She’s a joyful choice.
Tirzah is also a powerful literary appellation, thanks to:
- Swiss author Solomon Gessner penned “The Death of Abel” in 1758. The poem was widely translated, and he included a Thirza. I can’t find enough about it to know if that’s the reason Thirza and Thyrza entered use in English, but I suspect that’s the case.
- William Blake’s poem “To Tirzah” appears in his 1789 Songs of Innocence and Experience. It is neither a love song nor a criticism, but it doesn’t feel like the kind of work that inspires parents to choose a name;
- Lew Wallace gave the name to Judah Ben-Hur’s sister in his blockbuster 1880 novel, a novel that would become the smash hit 1959 film Ben-Hur. When the family falls on hard times, Judah is sent into slavery, while his mother and sister are imprisoned. The women contract leprosy in jail, and try to hide their condition from their brother, faking their deaths instead. Then there’s a chariot race, and a happy ending – at least for the Ben-Hurs, with mother and sister miraculously healed and everyone reunited. I can’t find a clip where they say her name, but I seem to remember it was teer zah.
Tirzah conjures up the ancient world for yet another reason. It was the name of a settlement mentioned in the Bible several times.
All together, Tirzah is the kind of rarity that parents can consider in 2011. You’ll have to spell it and say it several times, but the explanation that you’ve taken Tirzah from the Bible is straightforward.
Thyrza Segal says
having lived with the name Thyrza for 43 years I can tell you that I have to pronounce it a few times, then spell it and finally explain the origin to almost every person I meet. I pronounce it Thur-za- I am pretty sure it is the anglicized version of the Hebrew name Tirza. I tell people it was popular in 19th century England but has fallen into disuse…like Euphemia or Bathsheba (favourite names of mine). The last comment from British American made me smile because the most common mis-spelling and mispronunciation of my name is Thryza (Thri-za). My mom calls me Thyrz for short sometimes as do some of my friends.
British American says
My brain always wants to scramble this one to be Tiz-rah instead of Tir-zah – which makes me think of Tizzy for a nickname.
Charlotte Vera says
Ever since first encountering her when watching Ben Hur as a young child I`ve thought Tirzah a lovely name. Somehow, the fact that she means joyful while sounding like the English word for tears makes her even more appealing. The Dutch Thyrza isn`t quite as pretty, but she still fascinates me.
Thanks for the great write-up, Abby!
Even though it not technically correct, I’ve always pronounced this as TUR-zuh in my head. [Similarly, Therese is tuh-REES to me.]
Christina Fonseca says
I’ve had a like / dislike relationship with the name Tirzah since my high school days. Like Sarah, I also like the look of Tirzah but wish it didn’t sounds like “tears”. It’s still a pretty name and I would prefer this to so many trendy names. Maybe someone will have twins Tirzah and Jerusha 🙂
Sarah A says
I like the look of Tirzah better than her actual sound. I have a big soft spot for Biblical rarities, but there’s something about Tirzah that feels off to me. I think it’s that she sounds too close to the word “tears”; no matter how it’s prn Tirzah still sounds like “tears a” or “tears of” to my ears, and it just makes me think of someone crying and being sad.
I know an adult Tirzah. She’s an adult convert to Orthodox Judaism and I believe her given name was originally Theresa.
My best friend, (Tirzah is her SIL,) pronounces it like tur-ZAH. But that maybe due to her New Jersey accent
I think the “tur” would be instinctive to an American English speaker. It was my first thought when I looked at the name, too, but the “teer” sounds more appealing to me – though yes, it does sound like tears.
I knew a little girl with this name a long time ago. Such a beautiful name. I used it in a short story of mine, too. I think it’s strong without being overpowering, unique without being crazy, and super-feminine without being too cutesy or fluffy or bodice-ripper heroine. Interesting history!
And the child I knew pronounced her name “teer-zah.”
It’s spelled tav.resh.tsade.hey in Hebrew, and tsade can be transliterated as /ts/, /s/, /tz/, or /z/, so that could account for some of the pronunciation issues. 🙂
Thank you, Panya!