Monday, October 21, 2013

Susan & Other Popular Names

People still think of Susan as being too 'normal' a name to consider. Surely there are tons of Susans, so we'll name our child something modern and relatively Jennifer, Lisa, Ashley, Jessica, or Emily!

The irony, as I have explained to people before, is that everyone continues to believe Susan is a popular name - and for decades it has been becoming relatively rare. Name your child Susan and she may well be the only Susan in any of her classes. This chart shows the last time it was a leading name for girls in any large-ish state in the US - 1960! (A couple of small states held out to '62) I blame those lazy lyricists of the early rock & roll era myself. Too bad Sue/Suzy rhymed with so many words. I can't blame parents of that era for not risking it. At least by the time I was born in the late 60's most of those songs had faded from public memory. Maybe the songs also reminded parents that the name had been popular in their parent's youth too?

So, Susan may have been referenced very often in public culture, but it hasn’t been used as an actual name for most girls for some decades. At least they were right about it being an old-timey wimey name. It’s so old it’s cool!

The name of Susan has survived for thousands of years. Susa/Susan was the name of an ancient city on a trading route where some lovely flowers grew. Those flowers were domesticated, and the seeds were exported many hundreds of miles by lengthy caravans wending their spice-laden way across the ancient world. Girls were named for those flowers and the name stuck around for millennia - because of those flowers.

So if Susans were named for a flower that was named for a place – what did the name really mean? This is not known. One guess was something about a town of inhumanly-skilled masons, and Susa was their leader. One source says that Susa was the name of the earliest civilization in Persia (Iran,) and it’s capital was actually near a wetland where a particularly lovely lily grew. The flower, in this version, named the capital and the civilization (later known as the Elemites or Elamites, who were destroyed by Babylonians in Old Testament times.)

Another legend, which I love, held that original city of Susan was far older even than this. This Susan was a special trading center at the end of a lovely fertile valley that backed up to stone cliffs. The town's leaders especially valued learning, humility, and generosity. That legend says that initially the town had no outer walls and banned anyone holding too many goods in the town, believing that if they were generous with those who met to trade in their streets, and didn't allow an accumulation of goods to tempt a distant army, they would remain at peace. Eventually, however, powerful and wealthy merchants insisted on creating tower strongholds to make their trading more efficient. The town then had to build walls and maintain a military presence. Happily for them, the valley passes were defensible and the city survived many attacks, until the slow desertification processes that changed the Middle East eroded the ability of locals to survive there. The trade routes moved and the trading center relocated to Elam/Persia.

The current translation of Susan as "lily of the valley" or "lily of the fields" came from differing historians’ guesses as to what the ‘Susan’ flowers were. If the original city of Susan was based in the green valley of a mountain rage, the original ‘Susan’ flower could just as easily been some kind of edelweiss as any kind of lily. Some, I read, were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. I read a book that said old records complained that the Susa/Susan flowers preferred elevations to plains, and were delicate and tricky to grow in a flowerbed, but also that an irritated gardener could throw his remaining seeds at a cliff face or stonewall and find it had taken root there without him. That doesn’t sound like a wetland lily to me. lol

Note: the last major city named Susan/Susun/Susa on record, where Esther & Daniel lived, was most definitely a rebuild in another location. The original Susa (whether in a valley or by a wetland) was lost to the deserts. The one in the Bible – the oldest one for which we have clear records - may have been the 3rd city with this name. (The third may or may not have been rebuilt in the same area as the second.) This Susa was later renamed Seleucia. That city stuck around long enough to be destroyed by Muslim forces in 638AD. It was later rebuilt, but destroyed again by Mongols in 1218 AD

Notice that thousands of years of references still don’t offer any alternate meanings for Susan. If it was the name of a lily, then everyone’s been close to right all this time, but if not? I've noted some ancient languages in the fabled region of old Susa used sound clumps similar to Susan/Shushan to reference strongholds or fortified king's vaults. That would make sense for the name of a really early fortified trade town.

Wouldn't it be ironic if one of the ultimate 'girly-girl' names actually meant something like "castle?" How about if it was originally the name of a powerful king? Both are possible, and would have been a real comfort to that “Boy Named Sue.” ;)

IMHO Some variant of Katy/Katie and Ann/Anne/Anna/Annabelle/Annabeth should have been on these charts too. I have never been anywhere that didn't have bunches of both Annes and Katies. I suspect that its the variant spellings that kept them off the chart. Katherine/Catherine/Katerine are recognizable as the same name to a person, but not a computer. When you add in all the Katys/Katies from Kathleen/Cathleen and those just given the short version, you get a lot of Katy/Katies! Since the Susan modern variants are also fairly rare (Suzy, Suzanne, Suzette), I don’t think this affected the Susan name as much.

btw - those names go way back into pre-history too. According to a book I found in the 80's, Anne is the oldest girl's name found in cuneiform records that is still in use. They believe "Anne" implied a delicate, especially feminine child. Now it's translated as "favor, grace." At least there's an association of ideas there.

Ancient names are bow-tie cool! - but probably not as cool as this duck...

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