This mini name is everywhere, from Sesame Street to a kindergarten near you.
Thanks to Julia for suggesting Zoe as our Baby Name of the Day.
Zoe comes from Eve, by a round-about route. Alexander the Great conquered huge swaths of land, spreading Greek culture throughout the ancient world. Jews living in the newly Hellenized areas translated Eve as Zoe, and it has been a given name ever since.
In the third century, Saint Zoe of Rome was arrested and put to death for praying by the tomb of Saint Peter.
In 978, the future empress Zoe was born to a reigning emperor. This made her a prime candidate for a dynastic match. She almost married Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Arrangements were made and Zoe had boarded a ship. But Otto died midway through their trip, so she returned home. Zoe and her sister Theodora briefly ruled as co-empresses. Zoe later married and was consort to her husband, and then another husband, and yet a third husband, before her death.
At least one more saint and two other Byzantine empresses answered to the name.
Zoe was imported to France as Zoé. I can’t figure out precisely when, but Zoe Labouré was born in Burgundy in 1806. The farmer’s daughter was the future Saint Catherine. Could the eighteenth century Greek revival in Europe have influenced given names? Or did Catherine’s birthday fall on the Feast of Saint Zoe?
In any event, she joined the Sisters of Charity, took the name Catherine, and thanks to a trio of visions, introduced the Miraculous Medal, a symbol exalting Mary that is still worn today.
Fast-forward to 1859, and a smash hit play debuted in New York. Penned by Irish-born playwright Dion Boucicault, The Octoroon was a story of forbidden love between a Southern plantation owner and a woman who is an octoroon – 1/8 black. Her name is 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 Zoe clearly read French. The play was based on a novel written by Thomas Mayne Reid, a writer who had spent time in New Orleans.
So has Zoe deep roots, but she’s been relatively obscure in the US until recent years. After many years of sparing use, she cracked the US Top 1000 in 1983. She’s been in the Top 100 since 2000, and charted at #30 in 2012.
Celebrities have embraced Zoe:
- Was Henry Winkler the first to discover Zoe? His daughter arrived in 1980.
- Samuel L. Jackson chose the name for his firstborn in 1982.
- American Idol judge Randy Jackson also has a Zoe.
- Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz named their daughter Zoe in 1988.
- Rosanna Arquette chose the name in 1994.
- Woody Harrelson welcomed Zoe in 1996.
- Actress Melina Kanakarides used the name in 2000.
- In 2007, Randy Quaid welcomed Zoe Grace.
It looks like Zoe followed the same pattern we see with Ava – a steady stream of high profile birth announcements over decades helped transform her from obscurity to modern staple.
Fictional figures help, too, from Firefly’s capable second-in-command to Sesame Street’s orange dancing muppet.
Zooey Deschanel has an unorthodox spelling – borrowed from J.D. Salinger – but it is her rise to fame that track most closely with the name’s rise. Deschanel was landing her first major film roles as Zoe was cracking the Top 100.
Today, the spelling Zoey is slightly more popular than Zoe. Blame Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101, or maybe all of those kids called Joey.
From the ancient world to France, from sparing use to 21st century favorite, Zoe is a great choice for a daughter.