By Linda Rosenkrantz
In the seventeenth century, for some of the most puritanical of the Puritans, even biblical and saints’ names were not pure enough to bestow on their children, and so they turned instead to words that embodied the Christian virtues. These ranged from extreme phrases like Sorry-for-sin and Search-the-Scriptures (which, understandably, never came into general use) to simpler virtue names like Silence and Salvation.
The virtue names that have survived in this country were for the most part the unfussy, one-syllable girls’ names with positive meanings, such as Joy, Hope, Grace and Faith. But then, in the late 1990s, a door was opened to more elaborate examples by the popularity of the TV show Felicity, and its appealing heroine. Felicity (also the name of an American Girl Colonial doll) reached a high point on the girls’ list in 1999, a year after the show debuted, leading parents to consider others long forgotten relics.
Here are the Nameberry picks of the twelve best virtue names:
- Amity—like all the virtue names ending in ity, Amity has an attractive daintiness combined with an admirable meaning—in this case, friendship. It could be a modernized (or antiquated, depending how you look at it) namesake for an Aunt Amy.
- Clarity—we like it much better than Charity or—oh no—Chastity. And Clare makes a nice short form.
- Clemency—Clemency, the name of a character in one of Charles Dicken’s lesser known Christmas novellas, The Battle of Life, can be seen as an offbeat alternative to Clementine.
- Constance was originally used in a religious context which has been lost over the years. There are many Constances found in history and literature: there was Constance of Brittany, mother of young Prince Arthur who appears in Shakespeare’s King John, a daughter of William the Conqueror, and characters in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Constance hasn’t been much heard in the 21st century—probably because of the dated nickname Connie. The Puritans also used Constant.
- Honor (Honour in the UK) has gotten a lot of publicity in the last few years via the much-photographed daughter of Jessica Alba, but still is heard far more in the UK than the US. Honor Blake is a character in the J. M Synge play Playboy of the Western World, Honor Blackman a well-known actress in Britain who featured as a sexpot in the early James Bond movie Goldfinger.
- Justice—This strong, mostly male, name has made a comeback, returning to the pop chart in 1992 after being away since 1880; it’s now Number 456. Steven Seagal was ahead of the game when he named his son Justice in the seventies, and Janet Jackson gave it something of a gender switch when she played the title character in the 1993 film Poetic Justice.
- Loyal—One of the other few boys’ virtue names, Loyal was actually on the popularity lists for over half a century—almost every year from 1890 to 1948, the kind of name you might not be surprised to see on an elderly US Senator in 1905. But loyalty is such an admirable attribute, we can see it as an interesting middle if not first.
- Mercy, well used in the Colonial era, appears in Spenser’s The Fairie Queen as a matron in the House of Holiness, and was a character in Arthur Miller’s Puritan drama The Crucible, while Mercy Warren was a unique female activist in the Revolutionary War period. Charles Dickens made light of the name when he called the two Pecksniff sisters in Martin Chuzzlewit Mercy and Charity, with the nicknames Merry and Cherry. In our day, when Conan sidekick Andy Richter chose the name for his daughter, he said “Just in case Puritanism comes back, we’ll be ready with a real Pilgrim name.”
- Patience –Patience, despite its rather passive meaning, is another virtue name that has made a comeback, returning to the popularity list in 1994 after a century’s hiatus. Patience appears in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, and its popularity increased especially in England via the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta of that name.
- Pleasant, perhaps not as usable as some of the others, is now most associated with Pleasant Rowland, the educator, writer, and entrepreneur best known for creating the American Girl dolls. Charles Dickens used Pleasant, yet another virtue name, in Our Mutual Friend.
- Prudence is one of the more visible names of the group, as is her more accessible (and cute) nickname, Pru/Prue. Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence was John Lennon‘s inspiration for the Beatles’ song “Dear Prudence,” and the name has been heard on several TV shows, including Charmed, where the Shannon Doherty character was Prue Halliwell. Prudence was on the US popularity list for most of the years from 1880 to 1948.
- Verity—A lovely, underused choice, with a great, truthful meaning, and the currently popular ‘V’ sound. Playing against the name’s image, Madonna portrayed Verity, James Bond’s fencing instructor in Die Another Day; another Verity makes a brief appearance in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.