By Linda Rosenkrantz
For what seems like forever, this pair of sainted sister names, Agnes and Agatha, have seemed like the quintessential starched, buttoned-up, high-lace-collared, mauve-dressed Great-Great-Grandmother appellations.
I’d like to propose that we let the unbuttoning commence.
Agnes has a bit of a leg up on several counts:
1. She’s already attained some requisite starbaby cred. First actress Elisabeth Shue named one of her girls Agnes Charles, followed by the choice of Agnes Lark for the daughter of Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke followed suit.
3. She has a much stronger popularity history than Agatha: Agnes was a Top 70 name for 45 years, reaching as high as Number 37 around the turn of the last century. Sadly (depending on how you look at it), she hasn’t been in the Top 1000 since 1973.
One thing she does have in common with Agatha, though, is being the name of a revered saint. Saint Agnes of Rome was a popular and influential religious figure, a young virgin martyred in 303 AD –in fact both Aggies are among only seven female saints celebrated in the Canon of the Holy Mass. The cult of St. Agnes prompted widespread use of her name, to the extent that it was the third most popular girls’ name in the English-speaking world for 400+ years (after Elizabeth and Joan). The Roman St. Agnes (there were several others) is the patron saint of girls, chastity, engaged couples and gardeners. She’s often depicted in paintings with a lamb, as Agnes resembles agnus, the Latin word for lamb, though her name actually means “chaste, pure, sacred.”
In addition, Agnes has a number of ties to European nobility, is the birth name of Mother Teresa, and is also associated with dancer-choreographer De Mille, minimalist painter Martin, movie director Varda, and Ernest Hemingway’s great World War I love, Agnes von Kurowsky.
Fictional Agneses include the eponymous heroine of Anne Bronte’s first novel Agnes Grey and two Dickens characters—the hero’s angelic second wife in David Copperfield and Oliver’s mother in Oliver Twist,; Agnes is the birth name of Victor Hugo’s La Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and she’s, yes, a great aunt in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. In It’s Complicated, Lake Bell’s character is Agnes Adler, while Agnes Andrews was a featured gal pal on Gossip Girl.
Agnes has some great international cousins as well—the Spanish Ynez and Portuguese Ines/Inez, the Welsh Nesta, and the French Agnès, with the lovely pronunciation ahn-YEZ. In Ireland it’s traditionally been translated as Una. Still more variations: Agna, Agnella, Agneta, Agnette, Agnessa, Nessa and Nessie (in Wales)—and the reverse spelling Senga, invented in Scotland. Supermodel Agyness Deyn created her own unique spelling—she was born Laura.
Now on to Aggie #2
If anything, Agatha has suffered even more than Agnes from an image problem, due to frequent use for stuffy older characters, such as Bertie Wooster’s fierce Aunt Agatha, aka Lady Worplesdon, in P. G. Wodehouse’s comic Jeeves stories, and dour portraits of mystery doyenne Agatha Christie. But, if you can push those images away, Agatha is actually the prettier and lighter of the two, in addition to having the admirable Greek meaning, “good, kind woman.”
Agatha was brought to England at the time of the Norman Conquest by a daughter of William the Conqueror. She was hugely popular in Britain in the Middle Ages. In the US, she was in the Top 500 until 1920, but has been off the list entirely for around three-quarters of a century.
The beatified side of Agatha is represented by St. Agatha of Sicily, another young and beautiful medieval virgin martyr who was put to death for being a Christian in the persecution organized by the Roman Emperor Decius in the third century. In the Sicilian city of Catania, there is the miraculous Veil of St. Agatha, believed to have saved her island from Mount Etna’s volcanic molten lava, which explains why she is a patron saint for protection from fire, firefighters and nurses.
Trivia tidbit: Agatha is said to appear in the guise of an angry cat to women who deign to work on her feast day.
In literature, we find the French version Agathe in Balzac’s The Black Sheep, for a self-sacrificing woman, and the Russian Agafya in both Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and in a Chekhov story titled Agafya, but as Agatha in Anna Karenina, and also in her English form appears as a minor character in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Agatha did get some cinematic rejuvenation via spunky Agatha Brown, the spunky youngest child in the movie Nanny McPhee . And most recently, Saoirse Ronan played an Agatha in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Thomas Gibson of Dharma & Greg, Chicago Hope and Criminal Minds, named his daughter Agatha Marie in 2004—definitely ahead of the curve.
So here you have two substantive vintage names that have both been off the Top 1000 for decades, who share a cute nickname, and who are just waiting to be revived.
I rest my case.