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Classic Girls’ Names: The Claire Contingent–Claire, Clara and Clarissa

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by Linda Rosenkrantz

The crystalline clear classic Claire has seen an impressive rise recently—entering the Top 50 for the very first time in 2011—and bringing Cousin Clara and other relatives slip-streaming along with her. The perfect time to take a closer look at this clear-eyed family.

CLAIRECurrently favored spelling Claire was introduced to England by the Normans, but its modern use only dates back to the nineteenth century.  Now at Number 45, Claire has risen more than forty places since 2000, one of those solid  ‘sweet spot’ names that is familiar but distinctive, feminine but not frilly, popular yet immune to trendiness. Most prominent Claire at the moment is Emmy Award-winning Homeland star Claire Danes (mother of a son named Cyrus), while characters called Claire have appeared in movies and shows from The Breakfast Club to Lost to Modern Family.

CLAIRThis French spelling, less common here, was used for perfect mom Clair Huxtable in The Cosby Show. Clair de Lune means moonlight, as in Debussy’s immortal piano piece Clair de Lune.  Clair de Lune was also the title of poems by Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine and a short story collection by de Maupassant.

CLAREThis is the streamlined English spelling of Clara—the main English form used in the Middle Ages– associated with the thirteenth century St. Clare of Assisi, a follower of St. Francis and founder, in 1212, of the benevolent Poor Clares order of nuns  Because she reportedly witnessed a mass being celebrated a great distance away, this Clare was proclaimed the patron saint of television in 1958.  Writer and politician Clare Boothe Luce was a notable bearer of this version.  Clare and Clair were also the spellings once used for men (eg Clare Quilty in Lolita) and as a short form of Clarence.  A geographical reference is Ireland’s County Clare.

CLARAClara, the original Latin name, has had a somewhat rougher road than Claire, having had to combat the image of an older–sometimes European– woman, as seen in such characters as David Copperfield’s nurse known as Peggotty and Aunt Clara on BewitchedClara came into fashion in the nineteenth century and is prominent in Victorian literature.  Distinguished bearers include musician Clara Schumann and Red Cross founder Clara (born Clarissa) BartonClara Bow, the “It” girl of the 1920’s, infused the name with a mega-dose of oomph.  Clara, which was chosen for his daughter by Ewan McGregor in 1996, now ranks at Number 136—the highest it’s been since 1945– fitting in with similar au courant revivals like Cora and Flora.

CLARIBEL made her debut appearance in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and is thought to have been invented by the Bard. But her reputation was severely compromised by her later depictions as Disney’s Clarabelle Cow and Howdy Doody’s cohort Clarabel the Clown, from which she still may not have recovered, despite the vogue for bel-ending names.

CLARICEClarice originated as another French variant of Clara in the twelfth century and was fairly popular in the Middle Ages. The name took on some ominous overtones via its hissed elocution (accent on the EESE) by Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. On the artistic side, Clarice Cliff was an outstanding British ceramic artist.

CLARISSA—The daintier, frillier sister of the family has strong literary associations.  First there was Clarissa Harlowe, the central character (“a young lady of great delicacy”) in the seminal 1748 Samuel Richardson novel, Clarissa, followed by Clarissa Spenlow in Dickens’s David Copperfield, and then the memorable Clarissa Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

CLARINDAClarinda emerged in the sixteenth century as an elaboration of Clara, probably invented by Edmund Spenser for use in his epic poem The Fairie Queen (which also includes a Claribell).  HAsn’t been heard from much since.

CLARITYOne of the most delicate of the Virtue names; never as popular as Hope, Faith, or Grace, Clarity’s three-syllable sparkle adds to its lightness and appeal.  A recommended, uncommon choice.

CHIARAThe Italian version—pronounced kee-AH-ra– of the name meaning light is one of the loveliest and most romantic, and currently is a Top 10 name in its native paese.  Actress Chiara Mastroianni is the child of two of the Beautfiul People—Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni.  Chiara is not to be confused with Ciara (KEER-a), an Irish name that grew up in an entirely different family.

CLARENCE—The sole male Clarence is a noble British name, a royal ducal title usually held by younger royal sons, that has not kept pace with his sisters and cousins, due to a somewhat high-starched-collar image.  He does have some notable bearers though, such as lawyer Clarence Darrow, made famous during the Scopes ‘monkey trial,’ current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, director Clarence Brown and frozen food pioneer Clarence Birdseye.

What’s your favorite member of the Claire clan?

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