Thanks to Clio for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
The original Barbara’s story sounds like something out of a fairy tale.
The daughter of a wealthy pagan father named Dioscorus, Barbara secretly converted to Christianity. Her father locked her in a tower, to keep her safe from the outside world until her marriage. But when the proposal came – from another wealthy pagan – Barbara refused.
Instead, she acknowledged her faith.
Her father flew into a rage.
Barbara was dragged before authorities and tortured, but noting would make her renounce her faith. Instead, she would heal miraculously from her injuries. Torches meant to burn her would extinguish. Ultimately, she was beheaded – and legend tells us it was her own father who put her to death.
The martyr was avenged, though. The story tells us that Dioscorus was struck by a bolt of lightning on his way home and died, too.
Fellow Christians found her body and have her a proper burial. Her tomb became a site of miracles.
Said to be a story from the 3rd century, historical evidence is lacking.
But she became wildly popular during the Middle Ages.
Because of her association with lightning, Barbara is the patron saint of all things explosive, including artillerymen and those who work in dangerous professions. The US Army maintains the Order of Saint Barbara for members of the artillery.
She’s also the patron saint of architects, geologists, and mathematicians and one of the fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints considered especially powerful intercessors.
In Greek, barbaros means foreign. It’s the same root as our word barbarian.
So the baby name Barbara means foreigner.
And yet, Barbara was widely used across later medieval Europe. The name changes slightly across languages, but not so much that it’s not obviously the same name.
- Greek, as well as some Slavic languages, often swap the Bs for Vs, Varvara.
- Barbora is preferred in Czech and Slovak.
- Add an accent, and it’s Bárbara in Spanish and Portuguese.
- Scottish Gaelic transfoms it to Barabal; Swedish makes it Barbro, but it still looks very much like the original name.
Italian, Polish, Danish, French, Hungarian, and many other languages simply use the name Barbara, with slight changes to pronunciation.
In medieval English, Latin names took -y endings. Cecilia became Cecily; Margaret became Margery (and was eventually respelled to Marjorie, because marjoram).
And so Barbara was, for a time, Barbary.
The Barbary Coast – a term used to describe coastal North Africa from the 1500s into the 1800s – isn’t directly related to Barbara.
Pop culture boosted the baby name Barbara from the beginning.
The traditional ballad “Barbara Allen” dates to at least the mid-1600s. (The English diarist Samuel Pepys mentioned it in an entry.)
The traditional folk song tells a tale of heartbreak. A young man pines for the lovely Barbara, but she scorns him. Only at his funeral does she regret it.
It’s been popular for centuries – even Bob Dylan has performed the song.
BY the NUMBERS
So the baby name Barbara would’ve been found in much of the world, over many years. But how has it fared more recently?
First: the baby name Barbara has never left the US Top 1000.
But it wasn’t all that popular in the late 1800s, when US data is first reported.
Instead, the name started to rise in the 1910s. It surged in use, reaching the Top 100 in 1913; the Top 50 in 1920; and the Top Ten in 1927.
For much of the 1930s and 40s, the baby name Barbara ranked #2 or #3.
The result? Many parents chose the popular baby girl’s name, and many of those women grew up to be famous.
MAJOR BARBARA and MORE
What pushed the baby name Barbara to the heights of popularity the first time?
In 1905, George Bernard Shaw’s play “Major Barbara” debuted. It might’ve contributed to the name’s rise, but it was already gaining in use. Plus, it was 1915 before the play crossed the Atlantic to debut on Broadway.
Speaking of England, British suffragist Barbara Ayrton-Gould became a prominent activist during the 1910s, eventually serving in Parliament during the 1940s.
During the 1920s, Barbara La Marr starred in silent films. She was known as the “Girl Who Is Too Beautiful.”
But again, the name’s rise pre-dates all of these uses.
Then came 1959.
At that point, Barbara was a go-to name for a daughter, as familiar as Isabella or Olivia today.
In fact, Ruth Handler named the doll she created after her daughter, Barbara. (And Ken? That’s Barbara Handler’s brother.)
The doll’s full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts. In 1959, she was a brunette. But before long, the doll’s signature blonde hair was established. Barbie has been a bestselling toy and a pop culture phenomenon for over sixty years.
The hit 2023 movie starring Margot Robbie has recast the entire Barbie universe as something fresh and new.
But will it help reboot the name? More on that in a minute.
The Beach Boys sang about “Bar-bar-bar-bar-bar-bra-Ann” in 1965. The song was actually written a few years earlier by another group; their version was the one featured on the American Graffiti soundtrack in 1973.
But “Barbara Ann” became a hit for the group, and if Barbara hadn’t been a chart-topper already, it might’ve put it there.
American actresses include Barbara Stanwyck, the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning star of movies and television; as well as Barbara Eden, best known as the star of I Dream of Jeannie; Barbara Billingsley, the mom on sitcom Leave it to Beaver; and Barbara Feldon of Get Smart.
More recently, there’s Barbara Hershey and Barbara Bel Geddes.
The original Batgirl’s real name was Barbara Gordon.
The Bush family includes two Barbaras, the former First Lady, as well as her granddaughter.
Scientist Barbara McClintock won a Nobel Prize in 1983 for her work on genetic transposition.
Journalist Barbara Walters’ career spanned over six decades, interviewing a who’s who list, from every American president beginning with Richard Nixon to Hollywood legends like Elizabeth Taylor to international figures like Fidel Castro.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Barbara Kingsolver is the author of many bestselling novels, from The Bean Trees to Demon Copperhead.
Music gives us Barbara Mandrell, and, most famously, the legendary singer Barbra Streisand. That’s not a typo – Streisand was advised to change her birth name, Barbara Joan Streisand, to something more commercial as she started her career. She dropped an A from her first name, and the rest? History.
Fans of Stranger Things might also think of ill-fated Barb, Nancy’s bestie from the first season. Other fictional figures from recent years include Big Love’s Barb Henrickson and Beetlejuice’s Barbara Maitland.
One reason to consider the baby name Barbara ready for reinvention? The many nickname options.
There’s Barbie, of course.
Babs and Babe are obvious picks, too. (Though Olympic gold medalist Babe Didrikson was born Mildred.)
- Babette is sweetly French
- The Polish Basia rhymes with Sasha
- Bara is heard in Croatia
- German gives us Barbel
- Hungary transforms Barbara to Boroka
- In Russian, it’s reduced to Varya, from Varvara
Barbarella was the French comic book that inspired a kitschy 1968 sci fi cult classic starring a young Jane Fonda.
Bebe is another obvious possibility.
And then there’s Bobbie – or Bobbi. If Babs works, then Babbie or even Babsy seems like it could be on the table. But somehow Bobbie is every bit as close, and far more name-like.
Maybe it’s the strong association with the doll that made parents drop the name from their lists. It’s hard to say the name and not think pink. And shiny plastic.
Roman Catholic families might still consider honoring the saint. And plenty of families have a beloved grandmother or aunt by the name.
All together, the baby name Barbara is a neglected classic. If the 100-year rule applies, then Barbara ought to be ready for a comeback – and soon.
Just not quite yet.
What do you think of the baby name Barbara?
First published on April 8, 2014, this post was substantially revised and re-posted on July 25, 2023.