Editor’s note: This post was originally published on September 4, 2008. It was substantially revised and reposted on April 28, 2014.
Susan is your aunt, but this vintage possibility would sound right at home in 2014.
Thanks to Kim for suggesting today’s Name of the Day: Susannah. Susannah goes all the way back to the Old Testament, but she’s a nature name with botanical roots.
In Hebrew, shoshan is lily. In Persian, the flower was called sausan. Both may relate to an Ancient Egyptian botanical name, but then again, maybe not.
She’s evolved quite a bit. The Hebrew original is closer to Shoshannah, while the Greek is more like Sousana. In English, she’s often Susanna, but the ‘h’ spelling feels quite appealing, too, maybe because of the recent popularity of Hannah.
Back to the original Biblical bearer of the name.
Susannah was a virtuous woman. A pair of Peeping Toms spy on her in the bath, and come demanding favors or else they’ll sully her good name. She tells the Toms no dice, and is willing to face death – these were the days when a bad reputation was truly dangerous. Just as things look bleak, enter Daniel. (It’s his book of the Bible in which the story appears.) Daniel performs a cross examination worthy of a modern courtroom drama, and the Toms’ tale collapses. They’re put to death for lying, and Susannah – her virtue intact – goes free.
While some parts of Daniel were stricken during the Protestant Reformation, her story was well enough known to keep the name in occasional use through the Middle Ages.
There’s also Stephen Foster’s 1848 hit Oh! Susanna, popularly associated with the California Gold Rush, which started right as the song took off.
- A third century virgin martyr from the Diocletian persecutions, making this a saint’s name.
- William Shakespeare, that great namer, had a daughter called Susanna.
- During the Salem witch trials, Susannah was the name of both an accuser and one of the victims.
- Shirley Temple wore the name in a big screen adaptation of Muriel Denison’s novel about a young girl in the West. In the novel, she’s visiting her uncle, a Canadian Mountie. In the movie, she’s orphaned after an Indian attack and taken in by a Mountie – who Susannah eventually saves right back.
Despite the folk ballad, the movie, and the Biblical references, Susanna and Susannah have not been smash hits in recent centuries. Instead, Susan has dominated the popularity charts, ranking in the Top Ten from 1945 to 1968. The French Suzanne placed in the Top 100 most of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Susanna left the rankings entirely in 1997. Susannah has been gone since 1979!
Today, Susannah seems surprisingly vibrant. If Isabella can top the charts, why not this equally feminine choice? She benefits from easy translation into virtually any Western tongue and a raft of nicknames, including:
- Obvious Sue
- Popular Susie, Suzie, Suzy
- Slightly offbeat Sukie
- Unexpected Sanna or Sanne – contracted forms more common in Northern Europe
- Exotic, Slavic Zsu Zsu and Zsa Zsa – though they might be over the top
- My favorite, darling Zuzu – as in It’s a Wonderful Life’s Zuzu Bailey
Or go with the approach taken by the parents of so many little girls who are Alexandra, not Lexi, thanks, and call her Susannah.
If you’re looking for a familiar, but seldom heard name that has deep roots, a mix of femininity and strength, then Susannah – with or without the ‘h’ – is absolutely one to consider.