Esther brings to mind a legendary queen and a Hollywood legend. Is this early twentieth century favorite ready for revival?
Thanks to Fran for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
STAR … OR NOT
The most common meaning associated with Esther is star, from the Persian setareh.
That’s my go-to meaning, but others have been suggested, including:
- It might come from the goddess Ishtar. (Yes, Esther was Jewish. But Babylonian names filtered into use during exile.)
- I’ve seen suggestions that the Biblical Hebrew lehastir means to hide; if Esther comes from this word, it refers to her status as a Jew in hiding.
- Lastly, it could come from a word for myrtle, just like her original name at birth – Hadassah.
While we’re talking about her birth, the future queen was orphaned at a young age. Her cousin, Mordecai, raised her in Persia. When King Ahasuerus put aside his first wife, Vashti, for disobedience, all the eligible women were sent to the palace for consideration as a replacement. The beautiful young Esther was chosen as her successor.
The politics of the time proved treacherous. Esther and Mordecai helped thwart an assassination plot against the king. Not long after, a Persian prince conspired to kill all of the Jews in the realm. The prince appealed to the king for approval of his plan. Esther risked all to divulge the plan to the king, admitting her own heritage, and ultimately swaying the king’s decision in favor of the Jewish people. The feast of Purim commemorates her triumph.
That makes this a hero name.
Like many an Old Testament name, this one languished until the Reformation. But when US popularity data was first collected in the 1880s, the name ranked in the Top 100.
In 1883, President Grover Cleveland and wife Frances welcomed a daughter, their second. (Her big sister was “Baby” Ruth Cleveland.) It helped push the already-rising name in the Top 50 by 1894.
That makes this a nineteenth century celebrity baby name, of a sort.
Women of distinction wore the name over the years, including:
- It’s the name of Charles Dickens’ heroine – and only female narrator – in Bleak House.
- Esther Hobart Morris served as justice of the peace in Wyoming in 1870, making her the first female judge in the US. She’s also credited as a leader for women’s suffrage.
- Author Forbes won the 1921 Newberry Medal for Johnny Tremain.
- Judy Garland wore the name twice, in MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis, and later, in 1954’s A Star is Born. (Though in that second movie, she shed her birth name to become Vicki.)
- It’s the name Sylvia Plath gave to the main character in The Bell Jar.
- Esther Earl was the real-life inspiration for John Green’s bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars. She was a well-known vlogger and social media personality prior to her 2010 death from cancer.
But the most famous bearer of the name might be Esther Williams.
The California native learned to swim early. She picked up odd jobs at the swimming pool, and also lessons from the lifeguards. By the time she was sixteen, Williams was a three-time national champion.
In 1940, Williams joined the Aquacade, a mix of music, dancing, and swimming. At the time, Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie was starring in a series of successful sports-themed movies for Twentieth Century Fox. MGM discovered Williams, intent on doing the same thing with a swimmer.
During the 1940s and 50s, Williams starred in many a hit movie, many featuring elaborately choreographed swimming sequences.
While she retired from movies in the 1960s, she remained well-known throughout her life, with a swimwear line among many businesses to bear her name.
Esther started out a queen, but for many years, she became a mermaid.
READY FOR REVIVAL?
The name peaked in the early twentieth century, remained a Top 100 favorite into the 1930s, and then faded from use by the 1970s, bottoming out in the mid-300s.
Those dates suggest Esther is poised for a revival. Ewan McGregor gave the name to a daughter in 2001. Madonna reportedly used it when she studied the Kabbalah; she later adopted twin girls from Malawi named Stella and Esther – or maybe Stelle and Estere.
The numbers agree. In 2000, just 974 girls received the name. By 2018, that doubled to 1,831. 2018’s #153 represents the name’s highest rank in ages. But still, I think Esther still feels vintage and unexpected.
If you’re after a frills-free, vintage name for a daughter that feels heroic and brave, Esther is one to consider.
Which do you like better: Stella or Esther?
Originally published on November 29, 2012, this post was substantially revised and re-posted on January 30, 2020.
Ivy Clayton says
Esther isn’t a Hebrew name. It’s Babylonian. Esther’s Hebrew name was Hadassah.
I was acquainted with a woman named Ester, pronounced ehs TAR.
Julie G says
Can’t believe no one has mentioned Mrs Maisel’s daughter Esther! Maybe the show will push the name up a bit in popularity? It’s kind of growing on me but my baby- making days are over!
Oh Julie – of course! As a side note, I always find Ethan and Esther such a surprising pair of sibling names.
Despite the powerful story of heroism and faith behind the name, I have never appreciated the sound. Of the “star” names, my favorite is Estelle. That ending change really makes the difference for me.
I desperately want to like Esther, the meaning, people, stories, history & worldwide appeal of this name are perfect — but I just can’t bring myself to like the sound. 🙁
I’m a new reader within the last month or so, and I’ve been LOVING having a new name to ponder each day! I’ve been interested in names since I was very small probably because my own given name is so unusual (officially I’m Mary Leith, but I have always ALWAYS been called just Leith). I’d love to see Leith featured as a name of the day at some point! Thanks for the interesting daily read. 🙂
I adore Esther and her Lovely, nearly identical sister Hester… but they sound really silly with my surname.
So, if you’re considering the lovely Esther… do it, please!
As far a nicknames for Esther, an old classmate of Eldest Stepkid was nicknamed Etta.
Esther was a favorite of mine for years but it’s lost its freshness because I thought about it so much. Hearing it on a real child instead of just in my mind would probably do a lot to restore the shine, though.
Esther is my main character’s name in the project I’ve been working on for over a year now… She went through many name changes, not to mention major alterations, but Esther nn Essie is definitely her name! Esther fits her because it’s a strong, feminine, and serious name with a lovely Biblical namesake AND… the nickname Essie is just so fun and adorable.
I love Esther. My first thoughts (after the Biblical figure) are Judy Garland’s character in Meet Me In St. Louis and Esther Williams. I would love to hear more of it!
Charlotte Vera says
Mark has suggested Esther with every pregnancy. I always say “no” because, to me, it’s as familiar as Amy or Jennifer. Esther was a fairly common name amongst some of the South Indian community in which I grew up. It’s also heard quite a bit in the North American Korean community, so we met quite a few when working in the community for a couple of years.
It’s pretty, but I prefer the more obscure Hester. Or even rarely-heard Hadassah.
Charlotte Vera says
Perhaps I should also add that a friend (in India) who had her daughter the same month I gave birth to Roseanna named her baby Esther. So. . .it continues to be pretty but familiar.
Great name! So deserving of a comeback!
Before Estée Lauder’s name grew aspirational accent marks, she was called Esty, short for Esther. I know a few Esthers called either Essie or Estee said ess-tee.
For a long time it was too auntie/sleepy for me. It’s not exactly remarkable in Jewish families. I have come around on it though, probably partially because my (not-Jewish) husband likes it so much – to him its an exotic import, he brought it up to me cautiously as this interesting name he’d heard of, and I think in my shock I originally laughed, (its fair, he did the same thing to me in reverse about Deirdre) but I’ve come around. The only bad word I’ve heard against it from Australians is that it’s uncommon and that maybe it ought to be spelled Ester.
I had a friend in high school who was from a devoutly Christian family and red the Bible quite a bit. She really liked the name Esther. Back then, I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, but I like Esty, and I could come around.
Oh boy. I forget I can’t always edit once I hit submit. red should be read.