Name of the Day: Philomena

She’s lovely and quirky, familiar but rarely heard – a winning combination circa 2009.

Thanks to Bizzy for suggesting Philomena as Name of the Day.

You’ll spot phil in plenty of familiar words, and more than one name.  Philip and Philippa are fond of horses; Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love – and very occasionally, a given name.  The Greek phelein meant to love.  Philomena may only trace her roots to that word, or might also related to menos – strength.

She sounds ancient, but Philomena is young – and may never have been a given name at all.

Early Christians buried the earthly remains of martyrs and commoners alike in the catacombs – subterranean cemeteries.  Today they’re undeniably spooky.  Back then, they were practical.

The Catacombs of Priscilla – named after the woman who donated the land – would eventually hold nearly 40,000 bodies over eight miles.  Their use declined as Christian persecutions ended.  Eventually, they were all but forgotten.  In the late 1500s, Antonio Bosio entered many of the tombs for the first time in centuries.

Our story begins in 1802, when a group seeking martyrs’ graves found the body of a young woman.  They thought a vial enclosed in the tomb was blood and must surely denote a martyr.  The grave’s inscription read:

LUMENA PAXTE CUMFI

It almost certainly was out of order.  Rearranged, it reads:

PAX TECUM FILUMENA

The inscription translates to Peace be with you filumena. Filumena could be a given name – or a term of endearment.

The excavators trumpeted their success – the discovery of Saint Philomena’s remains, overlooking the lack of historical evidence for a Saint Filumena.  Or Filomena. Or Philomena.

Pesky details aside, nineteenth century Italy embraced her.  A nun claimed visions of her life.  The future Saint John Vianney was among several of her devotees, spreading Philomena’s reputation to France.  Miracles were attributed to her relics, housed near Naples.

History eventually won out, and you won’t find her on the official calendar today.  Perhaps her greatest legacy is her name.

Philomena is in use from Ireland to Italy and throughout the Spanish-speaking world.  The wife of the current Orléanist pretender to the throne of France, the Duc de Vendôme, is married to the aristocratic Vienna-born Philomena de Tornos y Steinhart.  (The couple welcomed their firstborn, Gaston, just a few days ago.) In the unlikely event that their claims are ever realized, Philomena could take on a regal air.

In France, Philomène had her best year in 1901.  Philomena peaked in the US back in 1915 and left the rankings after 1942.

If you’re looking for a true rarity, there’s the literary Philomela or Philomel – a poetic term for the nightingale, and a mythological princess of Athens who suffered mightily.  Writers from Ovid to Chretien de Troyes to Chaucer to Coleridge to Margaret Atwood have referenced her sad and gory tale.

Today, Philomena or even Philomela could appeal to parents who find the relatively uncommon Francesca and Valentina too familiar for their tastes.  With nicknames ranging from Mena to Polly to Pippa, she’s an unconventional choice that might wear well.

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10 Comments

I really love it. Very sweet, and not at all vanilla or boring either. I’m not sure it has the potential to blow up either, which can be an attractive quality since there are a lot of names that started out as sweet gems and are now bland from over-exposure.

I hope it stays on the list, Bizzy 😉

Minnie – I love it! I had an Aunt Philomena – probably Filomena, now that I think of it – who answered to Fanny.

My Aunt Linda was scheduled to be named in her honor, but by then, my grandparents had moved to the ‘burbs – and decided that their last child would be the first to receive a typically American given name, rather than a traditional Italian family-dictated choice.

Thanks Verity, my dad’s uncle was married to a Philomena (Aunt Minnie), lovely woman who would make an awesome namesake. I can never use it though, my mother thinks it’s the ugliest name ever…

Thanks, Verity! I had no idea that Philomena wasn’t used until the 19th century. It does have a cool story, and I love it’s sound. I’m not sure if it’ll make the final cut in June, but it’s definitely on the list. I am really taken with Mena, and especially with Polly!

Oh, I like Philomena, but my heart belongs to Philomela. I like the lilt of the -mela over -mena. Pippa ggreatly appeals, despite the good Swedish girlfriend 😀 (it’s apparently a rude slang word there). Polly is just too cute and Mena/Mina sound-wise will always be a winner for me!

I was sent to St John Vianney catholic grammar school for years and am finding the link between him & Philomena very appealing, raising Philomena’s value to me. Uncommon, familiar sounding, regal with a small host of appealing nickname options, Philomena’s going to be the topic of discussion tomorrow at breakfast. Now to convince him to want to try again! 😀