The Very Best of Nina SimoneEditor’s note: This post was originally published on August 1, 2008.  It was substantially revised and re-posted on December 16, 2013.

She’s a short, sweet complete name with a surprisingly international pedigree.

Thanks to Nicole for suggesting this name, and to Anna for suggesting it was time to update our Baby Name of the Day: Nina.

Nina, Lena, Gena, Tina – it is easy to dismiss them all as diminutives, short forms of longer names.

In Nina’s case, she can come from Italian and Spanish names, like Antonina and Giannina, a form of Giovanna.  She’s also found in Russian, from Annina, an elaboration of Anne, or Antonia.  Other -ina names, like the German Katharina, could also lead to Nina.

Except that Nina stands on her own very nicely, with plenty of possible origins:

  • The Spanish word for girl is niña.
  • Among the Quechua of South America, Nina means “fire.” Once the official language of the Incan Empire, it’s still spoken by more than 10 million people, mostly in Peru and Bolivia.
  • In the early 300s, a woman called Nino cured a queen and converted ancient Iberia – the modern-day Republic of Georgia – to Christianity.  Catholics call her Saint Nina, but Nino remains a female given name in Georgia.

Here’s one more reason to think she works an an independent name:  Nina was an ancient fertility goddess.  She lent her name to the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, back around 1800 BC.

Nina is related to Ishtar, as well as to the Sumerian Inanna and the Semitic Astarte.  Whether she was used as a given name is hard to say, but such ancient use lends Nina some strength.  And some suggest that Ninos – the masculine form of Nino – comes from the goddess.  Today, Nineveh is little more than ruins, part of modern Iraq.

In the US, Nina has ranked in the Top 1000 every year since 1880.  Since the 1990s, she’s hovered in the 200s – neither common nor obscure.  She fares better internationally, ranking in the Top 100s of Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.

Fictional Ninas abound, with plenty on television series.  There’s also:

  • The stylish Nina Garcia of Project Runway fame, also fashion director at Marie Claire magazine.
  • Eclectic, influential jazz singer, classically trained pianist, and civil rights activist Nina Simone lends the name some serious strength.  She was born Eunice, but a boyfriend nicknamed her Nina, from the Spanish word for little girl – her debut album was called Little Girl Blue.
  • There’s a little-known 18th century opera by Giovanni Paisiello called Nina, or the Girl Driven Mad by Love.
  • One of Christopher Columbus’ ships born the name – but in the case of the caravel, it was probably a twist on the name of the ship’s owner, Juan Nino.

Some sites also suggest Swahili, Arabic, and Native American use, but those are a bit more elusive.

Variant spelling Nena has seen some use, and earlier in the twentieth century, Nina was regularly pronounced like the number nine, even though today the first syllable nearly always rhymes with keen.

All of this makes for a name that would be recognized nearly anywhere in the world.  If you’re after a familiar name that isn’t common, and a portable, culture-spanning choices, there’s lots to love about Nina.

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About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. I’ve been Nina, officially, for nearly seven years, having changed it from Nicola which I’d hated for a long time.
    (I was asked if I’d still keep Nina if things went wrong in my life AS a Nina, and the answer is yes.)

    I feel like a Nina, although it does feel funny to have such a feminine name although I don’t identify as completely female. I also like the internationality of it – when I travel or talk to people from other countries, often they’ll say “Nina is a name in -” anything from Italian, Hebrew, French, Quechua!

    But for me, it’s Nina from my grandmother whose name isn’t Nina but Jean (my middle name). Her younger sister couldn’t say Jean so when a young child called her Nini. I am the smaller Nini and can only hope to grow up as wise and wonderful as my grandmother.