The baby name Zoe fits right in with twenty-first century favorites, like Ava and Ivy. But it comes with ancient and storied roots, a name with history to spare.
Thanks to Julia for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
We all know Eve, the first woman in the Book of Genesis.
It means, roughly, breath or life. (Which feels like almost the same idea, right?)
When Alexander the Great conquered much of the ancient world in the fourth century BC, he spread Greek culture throughout the ancient world. In the newly Hellenized areas, the Hebrew Eve became the Greek Zoe – also meaning life.
It’s been a given name ever since.
In the third century, Saint Zoe of Rome perished under the Diocletian persecutions. Word is that she prayed by the tomb of Saint Peter.
There’s an earlier saint by the name, too, who also suffered martyrdom. She’s particularly revered in the Orthodox Church, along with her husband Hesperus, and their two sons.
Saints often explain why certain names endure, and this may be the reason we hear the baby name Zoe over the centuries in the ancient world.
In 978, Zoe was born, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor. Naturally, her father arranged an advantageous marriage. She almost wed the Holy Roman Emperor, except he died while she was aboard a ship, sailing for their wedding. Instead, she returned home and married a Byzantine aristocrat.
The rest of her story rivals a soap opera for plot twists.
Zoe threw over her husband for a servant, who became the emperor upon their marriage. She lost a power struggle that ended with her new husband’s nephew taking the crown – but the public objected. After years of feuding with her sister, Theodora, the pair briefly reigned as co-empresses. There’s (so much) more, but suffice to say that all of these twisting tales cemented the name in the history books.
The baby name Zoe remained in use, at least in the east. In the late 1400s, another Byzantine princess, Zoe Palaiologina, married Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow – where she became known as Sophia.
By 1806, the baby name Zoe surfaced in France. That’s the year Zoe Labouré was born in Burgundy. She was a farmer’s daughter, not a Byzantine princess. But her birthday fell on the feast day of the original Saint Zoe, wife of Hesperus, and so she was baptized accordingly.
Her family mostly called her Catherine, her baptismal name, and that’s the name by which she’s known.
As a young woman, she joined the Sisters of Charity. After a series of visions, Catherine introduced the Miraculous Medal, a symbol exalting Mary. It remains significant today.
Given Saint Catherine’s universal use of her baptismal name, it’s tough to imagine that she caused an uptick in the use of the baby name Zoe.
But here’s something that might’ve made a difference.
In 1859, Irish-born playwright Dion Boucicault debuted a play in New York that would become a smash hit. Titled The Octoroon, it told the story of forbidden love between a Southern plantation owner and a woman who is an octoroon – 1/8 black. Her name? Zoe.
In the British production, the couple ends happily, with wedding bells. In the American version, Zoe dies.
The story was set in Louisiana, so the name Zoe clearly read as French. The play was based on a novel written by Thomas Mayne Reid, a writer who had spent time in New Orleans.
THE GLASS FAMILY
Before the baby name Zoe takes off in the US, there’s a detour.
Author JD Salinger introduced us to the Glass Family in the 1950s. They featured in multiple stories published in The New Yorker, and later, in novels. The seven Glass children included youngest daughter Franny, and youngest son Zachary – known as Zooey.
Despite the widely read stories, Zooey never took off as a given name – not until Zoe’s rise.
BY THE NUMBERS
We know that the baby name Zoe was steadily used in small numbers – two or three dozen – from 1880 onward. The numbers increased slowly, but remained modest. Still, it ranked in the US Top 1000 nearly every year.
Zoe started to gain in the 1970s. A handful of minor figures cold explain the rise.
Director John Cassavetes and actor Gena Rowlands welcomed daughter Zoe in 1970; the name pays homage to John’s Greek roots.
Other celebrities followed. Henry Winkler named his daughter Zoe in 1980. Samuel L. Jackson did the same in 1982.
By 1983, the name ranked #873.
From 1988 to 1989, the baby name Zoe leapt from #774 to #582.
And then it just kept climbing.
One possible spark? Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz welcomed daughter Zoe Isabella in 1988.
At the time, Lisa Bonet had recently graduated from The Cosby Show to A Different World. She was a household name. So was her rocker husband, who would score a major hit with his debut album “Let Love Rule” in 1989. The young family were major celebrities in the era.
In 1991, Kravitz recorded the song “Flowers for Zoe,” which seems to coincide with another big jump in the name’s use.
A STEADY LINE OF ZOES
The name continued to be used for real-life girls and small-screen characters, too.
In 1993, Sesame Street introduced an orange Muppet named Zoe.
The West Wing gave the name to First Daughter Zoey Bartlet – played by a young Elisabeth Moss – in the early 2000s drama.
Around the same time, Joss Whedon’s Firefly include capable second-in-command Zoe Washburne.
ZOEY and ZOOEY
Zoe looks a little like Joe, so maybe it’s not surprising that the spelling Zoey caught on. Nickelodeon series Zoey 101 – starring Jamie Lynn Spears – debuted in 2005.
A few years later, Zoey surpassed Zoe as the most popular spelling.
Actor Zooey Deschanel puts one more option on the table. She was named for the Salinger character. But despite her professional success, from Elf to The New Girl, Zooey has yet to appear in the US Top 1000.
Today, actor Zoe Saldana is among the most famous bearers of the name.
Oh, and speaking of actors? Zoe Kravitz is all grown up, and playing roles from Big Little Lies to an upcoming Batman movie, where she’ll play Selina Kyle – aka Catwoman.
From the ancient world to nineteenth century France, from Sesame Street to The West Wing, there’s no shortage of stories for the baby name Zoe.
As of 2019, Zoe ranked #38, with Zoey at #31, and Zoie at #921.
If you love your girl names short, sparky, and rich with meaning, the baby name Zoe might belong on your list.
Would you consider the baby name Zoe for a daughter? Which spelling do you prefer?
First published on June 4, 2013, this post was revised substantially and re-published on October 20, 2020.
What are your thoughts on Zoë rather than Zoe? My understanding is that the diaeresis is technicallg grammatically correct, although somewhat unnecessary due to the familiarity with the name… Not to be mistaken with the German umlaut which would change the pronunciation of the e, rather than just divide the vowels (as with the diaeresis). Would be great to hear your thoughts on this!
In the US, diacritical marks are not generally recognized. It varies by state, but much of the time, they will not appear on official documents. This could change – California, in particular, has wrestled with the issue because so many Spanish-speaking Californians argue that it forces them to misspell their names. (A perspective anyone who has ever taken Spanish 101 can appreciate.)
I’m intrigued by the impact of the internet. It exposes us to people who correctly feel that we’re misspelling their names – in a great many languages – when we omit diacritical marks. But the English-speakers who built many parts of the internet did not always include an easy way to use them. (In the early days of this site, I used them deliberately and often. When I migrated the site to a different server, it broke the content. To this day, I can still find errors in old posts caused by the freeze-up from diacritical marks. Who would’ve thought?!)
In practice, a great many people and places try to accommodate the use of diacritical marks as parents and individuals prefer. I’ve heard of an American Zoë whose teacher specifically asked the parent whether she wanted her to spell it with or without the mark. (She said yes, so she does.)
Outside of the US, my guess is that the marks are more important. Not necessary for a name as well known as Zoë, but perhaps more easily and generally used. Of course, there’s also the French Zoé as an option. So … even if you opt to spell it without any marks, you may find some added!
We tend to drop diacritical marks when we Anglicize names, and dropping them is straightforward. Since English pronunciation rules generally don’t rely on such indicators, it’s reasonable to assume that your child’s name will be pronounced correctly without them. But if it’s important to you, it’s worth continuing to use them – recognizing that you may have to advocate for their use in some settings, and may even be told it’s not possible in others.
Sorry there’s no easy answer!
LOVE Zoe! We recently picked this for our second daughter (first is Phoebe.) I love the Z beginning, the meaning and it’s short but strong. It wasn’t discussed as an option the whole pregnancy, then at 7 weeks old our little girl totally showed us she was called Zoe (meaning a change on the birth registry!). So it’s been a faff but we couldn’t be happier now that the name Zoe found us!
I. Love. Zoe. It is my favorite name of all time. Unfortunately, my future hubs hates it. I think I can get him to use it as a middle name though. So glad to see Zoe as the name of the day!
Such a cute little name. Zoe and Eve would make really cute names for twin girls – both mini-names with a similar meaning.
I love the name Zoe – it was definitely a rarity when I was growing up (1970s-80s), but that could be said of many names that are popular now. (There weren’t many Avas, Olivias, Ethans or Aidans back then, either!) There was one girl in my high school called Zoe and I just thought it was the coolest name.
It would have been a top three for our daughter if a cousin of mine hadn’t used it for his daughter first. And, in all honesty, its current popularity does put me off it a little, especially with Zoey having become the more popular spelling. I’m always happy to meet a little Zoe, though.
Oops, I meant ‘top choice’, not ‘top three’. Looks like I’m a bit sleepy, too!
Yay, you finally did Zoe! I’ve been waiting for this, because Zoe is my favorite name EVER. It’s spunky, but because of the Byzantine empresses, it also seems rather regal and elegant at the same time.
I had no idea that Saint Catherine was originally born Zoe. That’s interesting because two of the combos on my preliminary list were actually Zoe Catherine and Catherine Zoe. (My two favorite girls’ names.) Unfortunately, DH just isn’t the biggest fan of Zoe, so we decided on Catherine Ophelia if we have a girl. (But maybe I can get him to change his mind for future daughters… *crosses fingers*)
I really do love Zoe, but the popularity puts me off of using it for my kid. I like the spelling Zoe the best because I love other girls ends in -e like Penelope, Persephone ect. My favorite alternative spelling and probably the earliest celeb baby Z is Zowie Bowie, although it is one of his middle names he went by Zowie til he was 12.
Oops, I was typing way to soon after I woke up, I knew of St. Zoe not new.
This is a great blog post. I love saint names and new about St. Zoe of Rome, but I had no idea that St. Catherine Laboure was born Zoe or that the name related to Eve. These peppy Greek names are more guilty pleasures for me as I don’t think they seem grown-up enough for me to actually use.