The Two Aggies: Agatha and Agnes unbuttoned
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.
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on August 20th, 2014 at 11:20 pm
I completely agree!
Both Agnes and Agatha are superb names. There’s strength in their rich history (take that, Destinee) and in their hard g sounds. They are old-fashioned but formidable.
Agatha in particular seems formidable, a clipper ship of a woman name, sailing through life jauntily. Agnes sounds more tender-hearted and soft but certainly not wimpy.
I also like Morag.
on August 20th, 2014 at 11:30 pm
Yes! I’m thrilled to see this post. I love Agatha especially, no nickname needed. Agnes is sweet too.
on August 21st, 2014 at 12:00 am
I love the rising popularity of both names, and definitely think that they deserve it! I used to prefer Agatha, but now I’m an Agnes lover. I also used to adore the nickname Aggie, but now I think that both of them are lovely without a nickname.
on August 21st, 2014 at 12:41 am
The 3-year old I babysit has an Agnes AND an Agatha in her preschool (both go by their full names). She lives in a very artsy, well-to-do area of a very cosmopolitan city, and the parents definitely represent the vanguard in terms of innovative naming. I expect to see both names climb. Agatha is definitely my favorite.
on August 21st, 2014 at 12:52 am
I’ve loved Agnes for years. I grew up with a Catholic grandma and I remember St. Agnes in my book of saints for children. I have never been a Catholic myself, but I was always drawn to the story of Agnes, and by extension, her name.
I don’t know if I’d ever use it as a first, but I love the Hungarian variation Aneska as a middle.
Agatha has never had the appeal for me that Agnes has, but I appreciate that it’s getting some love, too.
on August 21st, 2014 at 12:59 am
I know I’m in the minority here on nameberry, but I honestly don’t like either name. To me it’s not that their old and fusty but that they’re so harsh to the ear. I appreciate your argument but you won’t sway me. Agatha amd Agnes can remain in the dark corners or resigned to the history books.
on August 21st, 2014 at 3:16 am
@emekct – I completely agree. Harsh, hard, heavy sounding names. I really dislike these names.
on August 21st, 2014 at 5:44 am
I can see both rising in popularity. Agatha appeals to me more.
on August 21st, 2014 at 6:51 am
I like Agnes, but I love Agatha!
on August 21st, 2014 at 7:06 am
Agnes is the most wonderful combination of sweet and sturdy. I love it! If only I could get OH on board….
Agatha just doesn’t appeal to me. I find it dour, homely, and almost leaden next to bright Agnes.
on August 21st, 2014 at 7:54 am
I agree that Agatha is the prettier of the two! I have come to quite like it!
on August 21st, 2014 at 8:11 am
I prefer Agatha to Agnes for some reason I don’t know why! But I really do think Agatha is alot more feminine and would age better as the child grew up! But I don’t like the nickname Aggie or Aga for some reason either.
on August 21st, 2014 at 8:53 am
I really like Agnes. Agatha leaves me a bit cold. Dh dislikes both. One of my 10 year old daughters favorite names is Agnes. Maybe I’ll get a granddaughter Agnes.
on August 21st, 2014 at 10:07 am
I love these, especially Agatha.
on August 21st, 2014 at 10:21 am
Agatha is one of our front runners for our baby who will be born any day. Our experience has been that people either think its a really great name or stodgy and awful. We think once people have an experience with a young, adorable, vibrant Agatha, their association with the name and old stodginess will loosen up. Most people don’t know any young Agathas so it is challenging for some to think of it as a great name for a little person. But IT IS!!
on August 21st, 2014 at 11:14 am
Great article. It’s definitely time to revive both Agnes and Agatha, on the heels of August/a/en/us. I personally love Agatha, probably because it was the name of one of the family cats during my childhood. Agatha has a cool witch-y feel like Tabatha. I was surprised that the post didn’t mention that St. Agatha of Sicily was tortured by having her breasts cut off and is the patron saint of breast cancer patients. So Agatha could be an honor name for a loved one who has passed from or survived breast cancer, or a nice pick for an expectant mother who is a survivor. The post also neglected to mention the lovely Agata. I think this version may appeal to more people as it’s less stodgy and more melodic and cosmopolitan.
on August 21st, 2014 at 1:37 pm
I can’t get past the “Ag”. Ugh! Such a horrible texture and sound, like gag. I want to like Agnes, because the “nes” appeals to me. The “tha” in Agatha just completes the awful texture and sound of the name for me.
on August 21st, 2014 at 2:21 pm
I like Agatha better than Agnes.
on August 21st, 2014 at 3:18 pm
I’m not sure. It’s a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to my primary associations, which for some reason are really strong, especially with Agnes. Agnes reminds me of both the cute little girl from Despicable Me (yay!) and Agnes Skinner from the Simpsons (boo, kind of. I really love The Simpsons). Agatha reminds me of Agatha Christie (yay!), but also Agatha Trunchbull from Matilda (boo!).
on August 21st, 2014 at 4:11 pm
Yay for this post! I love both of these names for their own reasons or people I’ve known with them. Agatha makes me think of the jewelry store, whose logo is an adorable scottie dog, so this name is very sparkly and sweet to me!
on August 21st, 2014 at 5:24 pm
The names don’t sound any vintage for me – they are actually very popular in Poland, where I’m from 🙂 so I’ve been hearing them all my life, but, of course, in Polish versions of Agnieszka (read: Agnieshka) and Agata.
Agnieszka (a version of Agnes) had been given to over half a million Polish girls in the past century; it was number 67 in terms of popularity (in 2012).
Agata though was given to about 164.000 Polish girls over the past century, while in 2012 it remained in 27th spot (!!!).
I just thought I share my knowledge sourced from official statistics; because it’s very interesting for me how different countries can pick up on one names, leaving the others behind – the ones, which are actually highly popular in another countries…
For the reverse situation, I give an example of Emma – it is highly popular in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain and even Scandinavia, while in Poland it is ‘one of a kind’, which basically means that through the 19years of my life spent in the country I’ve never even heard of any Polish girl named Emma 🙂
At the end – sorry for my messy English, it’s apparently not my day today; plus, I am not a fan of either Agatha or Agnes; they both sound very strict and serious to me. But anyway, the article is great!
on August 21st, 2014 at 5:54 pm
They aren’t names for me. The “ag” sound makes me think of “hag”. Dumb, I know, but the reason I just won’t ever be able to use.
on August 21st, 2014 at 6:27 pm
I wouldn’t use them, but I’d love to see Agnes and Agatha make a comeback. It seems only logical. We have Abbie, Addie, and Maggie, so why not Aggie? And I agree with whoever said they could ride in on the coattails of August & Company. The “Aug” and “Ag” sounds are so similar.
on August 21st, 2014 at 6:38 pm
According to Nook of Names, Agatha has connection to pagen cults. She was a women who refused to marry a man and her breast were cut off and killed. A religion sprung from it that only the upper crusted were allowed to engage in. It was a cult of virgin women refusing men and marriage and ” Ithink”practiced imaculation. Agnes was the poor women’s version of the Agatha cult. Check out Nook of Names site for the exact details and accuracy. I have always seen the two names used in Halloween specials for the witches or for movies in certain era’s like recency periods. I like Agatha vs. Agnes, but being Christian, I would probably stay away from the two names.
on August 21st, 2014 at 6:55 pm
I prefer Agatha. I cant stand when people pronounce Agnes phonetically. I like it better as ON-yay. I can see the appeal, but Ag is not a pleasant sound to me.
on August 21st, 2014 at 7:23 pm
Senseandsensibility up there said what I was going to comment on, that Agnieszka and Agata are really popular Polish names (I knew one and two, respectively, of both living in Ireland and they all said it was a common name).
I think I like Agatha more than Agnes. The G to N change (almost like trying to swallow the letters!) in Agnes isn’t a pleasant sound to me, though I do agree the ga-tha in Agatha can make the name trip over itself.
Either would be a cute name for a little dog though. 🙂
on August 21st, 2014 at 9:34 pm
Agatha is on top of my list! I find it prettier then Agnes although I hate the nn Aggie.
on August 22nd, 2014 at 6:42 am
“Gag me with a spoon!” screams my 12-year-old 90’s child id. There are some sound arguments in this article, but not nearly enough to overcome my visceral disdain for the sound of these names. They’re plain ugly to my ear. Gagatha, Gagnes…oh it’s just too easy. To each their own, of course, and still much better than some of the ridiculous youneek misspellings and questionable choices like Messiah out there.
on August 22nd, 2014 at 10:46 am
Although perhaps Agnes and Agatha together (as with two sisters I happen to know) may be a bit much.
on August 22nd, 2014 at 4:21 pm
I quite like Agatha (perhaps because I’m quite the Agatha Christie mystery fan) but strongly dislike Agnes, and the nickname Aggie. Strangely enough, Maggie is very appealing to me. Go figure.
on August 23rd, 2014 at 11:14 am
I really think there are three groups of people when it comes to the Agatha and Agnes discussion. Those that prefer Agatha, those that prefer Agnes and those that dislike both. I, for one, fall into the “prefer Agnes” portion. I like Agatha but I’d be lying if I said I’d ever consider using it. It’s one of the few “old lady” names that I wouldn’t mind sitting out for awhile longer. I think Agnes has been made fresh with Despicable Me being such a hit. I know that’s where I first considered it (before that movie, I would’ve been in the “dislike both” category). My concern is, I don’t much care for any other version of it. Inez and the like are not for me and that, like my cousin has mentioned numerous times, Agnes could be teasingly called “angus”…
on August 25th, 2014 at 6:06 am
I have grown up as an Agatha who has been called Aggie and I love my name.
It is individual and people don’t generally forget it.
A great name and you just wear what you are given 🙂
on August 26th, 2014 at 4:24 pm
I like Agnes, particularly the French pronunciation. Mary Agnes as a first name makes a lovely Catholic choice. Essie is another vintage nickname for Agnes.
I have a friend, Agatha, who has always been devoutly Catholic. She wears the name well, and goes frequently by Aggie.
Thanks for bringing these two Aggies to the fore. How fresh these names sound. As always, great vintage photos.
on August 26th, 2014 at 4:25 pm
Isn’t one of the daughters (the girl about 11) Agnes in Meet Me in St. Louis?
on August 26th, 2014 at 4:43 pm
Annie could also be used as a vintage nickname for Agnes, in addition to Aggie and Essie.
Christian song artist, Michael W. Smith, wrote the beautiful ‘Agnus Dei,’ honoring the sacrificial Lamb of God.
on August 28th, 2014 at 3:53 pm
Agnes and Frances are good for twin girls/sisters.
on May 1st, 2016 at 8:24 pm
Agnes and Frances-Yes! I don’t like either of those names too much but love them together, with nicknames Essie and Frankie or Frannie.
I know I’m a minority here but hate the name Agathat, I always say Gagatha and I am not the biggest fan of Ag es either. I just dislike the Ag sound.
on March 30th, 2019 at 6:29 pm
i was born in 2003 and my first and middle name is Agatha Rose. i used to hate it and wanted to be called something common like natalie or sarah. i’m about to turn 16 and i absolutely love it and honestly believe that no other name would have fit me. hats off to my mom!
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