Editor’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.
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.
A famous Nina was the Danish ’50s/’60s singer Nina, Baroness van Pallandt, who with her Dutch husband was a big star in Europe, known for calypso-style songs (Nina and Frederik). A cool blonde, born 1932, she was baptised Nina Magdalena, which I think is an attractive combo.
Nina has become popular in Australia after the main character of the TV show Offspring. Her subset.includes Billie and Jimmy.
The only Nina I know is 100 years old, thus born in 1913, and she’s a “nine-a”. I’ve never liked that pronunciation but I see after reading this post that it may have been the more usual pronunciation in the early 20th century.
As I recall, Laura Wattenberg (“The Baby Name Wizard”) has a daughter named Nina.
Kristin’s comment above hits the nail on the head on nine-a vs. neen-a. I think that the long I sound was just more popular 100-ish years ago, and consider that the majority of words in English pronounce I as “eye” or “ih”, not “ee.” I think that was just what was more familiar at the time. My grandmother’s sister (born circa 1920) was Nina, pronounced nine-a.
So weird! My husband just told me he likes the name Nina yesterday. He rarely speaks of names and rarely has a strong opinion when I ask for one, so it was a momentous occasion! Ha. I love all of the history associated with Nina, love that it is 4-letters, love the sound, but I think it is a bit too close to my mother’s name, Tina.
Oh, and I grew up across the street from a Nine-a. I like that pronunciation as well.
I’ve seen many Native Americans use Nina & Neenah here in MN. Neenah is the Winnebago word for “water” or “running water”. According to http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/dictionary/index.asp?action=view&term_id=3870&
Tiana Johnson says
I know a Kristina that goes by Nina, which I have to say I prefer over Kris or Tina.
I like that quite a bit!
Super late to this post, but thought I would add to the Nina as NINE-ah bit. Latinized names in England were often pronounced with a long i sound. Maria and Sophia were both traditionally pronounced as mah-RYE-ah and soh-FYE-ah, respectively. Nina was the same. The continental pronunciations appear to have caught on after the World Wars.
Nina Cooney says
Hi,my name is Nina,pronounced Nee-na , I’m only 12 years old and my birthday is in December 28th i was born in 1999 in S.A,i am Latin,Greek,Spanish,Portuguese and irish… I find this all amusing but quite confusing,probably because I’m only 12,but think of the name Nina as a sense of beauty xxx Zzzz
My name is Nina. Its pronounced nin-ah, but alot of people say nine-ah. I dislike my name, since a lot of people get it wrong and I think it is very uncommon. Maybe one day I’ll like it, but right now I’m only 14.
Mine is pronounced Nee-nah! I love the name. It’s an endearing name, it means “little girl” in Spanish that always puts me into smiling whenever my mom or dad calls me. It’s like “my little girl come here!”. Well, still put me into smiles too when my bf or friends call me though 🙂
Nina Colsrud says
my name is nina (nine-uh)… i have met a couple ppl with the same name and never got any idea as to how the name came about… all i have to go on is that my family came to the u.s. in 1899 from norway, their first child born here but ninth child born, was nina and my mother named me after her… nina lillian… it’s impossible to figure out the meaning but i’m thinking it’s a very old scandinavian name because my great,great grandparents stuck with names from their home for their children…
Allison S. says
Yes, I am in my mid-twenties and this is my mother’s name! It’s also pronounced Nine-ah, and I have always loved it. She was named after her grandmother, who was Norwegian, so there’s some kind of Scandinavian history.
My name is Nine-ah also and I found this blog while looking for history on the long-i pronunciation. I was named after my grandmother who was from Croatia, so I’m assuming that the name was eastern european but I’m not sure. I would love to know the history behind my name!
Hi, I’m a “Nine-uh” and I love my name because it’s so unique these days. I’ve never met anyone who pronounces it the same way but have met lots of people who have friends and family that do. Funny thing is that they all seem to be in their late 60’s and up and all from the eastern part of the U.S. My mom named me after my grandmother (who is from Iowa) but has no idea where the name came from. I did meet an East Indian couple on a flight once who said the name is common in India and it means “pretty eyes”. Nice!
My name is also Nina, and I am named after St. Nina. “Nina” is the Russian form of the Georgian “Nino,” and apparently she’s Nina in the Catholic church as well…I didn’t know that. Russian Orthodox tradition states she was born in Cappadocia (present day Turkey) in the third century A.D. as the only daughter of a Roman general named Zabulon and his wife Susanna. The Babylonian and Greek roots make sense to me, as it seems to be a very old name. I also wanted to offer clarification–it’s not solely an abbreviated name in Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries.
Nina Ebiteh says
My name is Nina!! And I just love all the history behind the name. My parents told me it meant grace in English!! Now I’ve just discovered this whole new side to my name. I like it a lot! Thanks for the info
Hey- I’m a “nine-ah” too….I just love it. My middle name happens to be Christine…too rhymey with “knee-na” but goes well with “nine-ah” I think. I was named after my great grandmother…also my husband is a chef at a senior living facility and he knows a resident there named “nine-ah”…I agree that it must be old fashioned. I have only personally met a few others in my lifetime.
My name is nina.
Best name ever.
My name is Nina and it is pronounced Nine-uh. I have met a few other girls who pronounce it the same way. My parents knew a few people who with the name Nina and just liked it. I do like it the way it is pronounced and it goes very well with my middle name, Nina Victoria.
Hmmm … younger NINE uh, any idea if there was something in particular that influenced your parents? I’m quite curious about the pronunciation – it does seem like NINE uh was once more common, but I can’t figure out why. (Though NEE nah is clearly dominant now … could that be because of the influence of Tina and Gina?)
Nina Victoria is a fabulous combo, BTW.
Nina Im says
My Name is Nina pronounced Nine-ah! I’m 34 and was named after my great great Aunt from Canada. I wish there was a little history on the Nine-ah version.
My very favorite person, also my grandmother, is named Nina. Her husband has called her “NINE-UH”, but she abhors it and won’t answer to it any longer. The prettier and proper way to pronounce it is “Nee-nuh”. I am considering this name very serious if we have a girl (due in early August). What I am not fond of it my Gram’s middle name, Louise. Though it flows nicely with Nina, I don’t like it. And I’m having trouble coming up with other middle names that go well. Nina Rose, Nina Christine, and Nina Ann, and Nina Elise are out. Help? I may even use Nina as a middle name if I find another first name I like.
Well my name is Nina (born in early August as well!), pronounced Nee-na, and my middle name is Angel. Nina Angel may not be the best combination, but middle names should not be used only for fluency but they should have significant meaning and purpose as well. Perhaps think of a name that means something significant to the parents, or the baby. Or perhaps when you meet your child you will find a name that comes instantly to mind! Thats certainly how I got my middle name and Im very happy to have it.
Nina as a nickname for Athena – that’s quite clever, Laney!
And Allison, now that you mention it, I’ve met a “Nine-ah,” too – also older. I haven’t got a clue why that alternate pronunciation was out there – maybe a song? I’ll keep an ear out – and if anyone runs into a Nine-ah, please ask!
Laney McDonald says
I love Nina! It’s simple, but very pretty. It reminds me of Diane Keaton’s character in the Father of the Bride movies and I find her character to be really awesome and funny.
I like Gina, Lina and Mina too. I had an aunt named Gina who passed away in 2005 from pneumonia and she was a great person. I’ve never met a mean Nina or Gina and I’ve never met anyone named Lina. I’ve never met anyone named Mina either. You don’t hear that name everyday. lol
Anyways, I’m thinking of using Athena if I ever have another little girl and I could possibly use Nina as a nickname. It’s one of my favorite names. It goes well with my last name too.
I have known two middle-aged Ninas, and curiously enough, they were both pronounced long i, Nine-ah.
I think one of Laura Wattenberg’s girls (you know, the author of “The Baby Name Wizard”) is Nina. IIRC, her younger one is Eve. I really like Nina but prefer her as a nickname for Antonina, which I lov but sadly does not mesh well with my surname. She’s far too simple for me otherwise. I wouldn’t mind meeting a few though, it beats a host of other names I hear nearly daily!
Very exciting! I look forward to it. 🙂
Welcome, rockingfetal! Glad you’re enjoying it.
Abel – what an interesting thought! He’ll be Name of the Day on August 23.
Nicole better use Nina or else I will auf her. Her only excuse will be if her next LO is a boy, as He-Nina wouldn’t be very attractive.
I’ve been checking the blog daily since Nicole suggested it to me. Such a great site! I see she has already gotten a shout out to that other name… Lori was it?… and Nina in the short time I’ve been reading. I also found Everett, who may I say is dead sexy and never reminds me of pork, upon my searching.
I believe I saw you may post suggestions in the comments section? Well I would like to throw Abel out there for you. YCCII – as well as The Hippy, though too stoned to remember – suggested it to me weeks ago, and I cannot get the name out of my head! It has a very limited fan base (yet steady on the SSA!) from my early findings, and I would love to hear your take. Thanks a bunch.
Hooray for Nina! I am really liking this name, for many of the reasons you mentioned. I love the ancient history connection to Nineveh and I also love that it’s such a cross cultural name. Familiar but not common, easy to spell and pronounce, I really feel like this name has it all. The only drawback for me used to be its “cuteness”—the nickname feel you spoke about. But ninagarcia! of Project Runway fame (I’m a big fan of that show too) has totally made me see the name in a new, more powerful and sophisticated light.
250 on the SSA list is a bit higher than I’m normally comfortable with, but the fact that Nina hasn’t really fallen or risen much in the past 20 years makes me more comfortable. I often think that if you are trying to avoid trendy names, it’s probably best to look at how quickly a name is rising rather than just its current placement.
Isn’t that funny? I’m Italian – Nina, Gina, Lina and Tina are all big, though in fact, we only have Ginas in my close family. And since the younger generations are discarding the practice of passing on well-worn family names, the youngest Gina I know is 30-something.
I’ve known a few Ninas and none of them were nicknames. In fact one of them is German and told me her name was German. I’d not heard of it only being a nickname before you mentioned it – to me, it stands on its own naturally. I like it, but because I already know a few people named Nina, I wouldn’t use it on my child.