We’ve stumbled across this one before, but admit that we knew nothing about her until Christina was good enough to nominate her as our exotic, Eastern-leaning Name of the Day: Zenaida.
You probably wouldn’t name your little boy Zeus. Who wants a thunderbolt-tossing, swan-seducing son? Nonetheless, the Greek feminine name Zenais traces her roots to the traditional chief Olympian.
While Zenais is all but extinct these days, she’s generated a quartet of slightly more wearable, slightly more common monikers: Zenaida, Zinaida, Zenobia and the French Zénaïde.
We don’t know how many ancients wore a version of the name, but around the year 100, a pair of highly educated Jewish sisters called Zenaida and Philonella became Christians and physicians. They set up shop near Thessaly, caring for the sick without regard for their ability to pay. Some reports say they lived long lives; others tell us they were stoned to death by pagans. In any case, both became saints in Eastern Orthodox tradition.
The spelling Zinaida is the preferred translation from Russian, and you’ll find plenty of Slavic bearers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Should you travel to Moscow, you’ll hear it given a four-syllable sound: zee nah EE dah. Among English speakers, the shorter zay NAY dah or ze NAY dah is the norm. We think the latter is heard more often, but with rarities, that’s always a tough call.
The French version is even less common, but we mention her because of Zénaïde Bonaparte, a sometime princess who married an ornithologist. When her husband discovered a new type of dove, he named it in her honor. Today, they’re known as Zenaida doves.
Another graceful bearer of the name is the Royal Ballet of London’s Zenaida Yanowsky.
As for Zenobia, while she shares the same roots, she has a very different vibe. The most famous Zenobia was a third century Syrian queen. Following her husband’s death, she took control and went on to conquer Egypt. The Emperor Aurelian defeated her, but was so impressed by her skills, he let her live happily ever after in Tivoli.
Despite her ancient origins, Zenobia has a decidedly American spirit. Nathaniel Hawthorne used the name for his feminist character in his 1852 The Blithedale Romance. The name sometimes appeared in the US Top 1000 in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today she’s visible because of Tina Fey’s starbaby Alice Zenobia.
Zenaida and company could appeal to parents who crave the exotic and the historic. If you’re heartbroken to learn that Sophia is a Top Ten pick and fear that even Claudia and Cordelia are too familiar, a choice like this might satisfy.
Of course, with her bright “ay” sound and vibrant Z at the top, she manages to sound crisp and modern, too. We can see Zenaida substituting for Mikayla.
If you’re looking for unusual, you can’t do much better than Zenaida.