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Interesting Name Facts with Julie Hackett

Go with the Flow: River Names

A rive runs through

River - as a personal name - is gender-neutral in America. It is currently ranked #105 for boys and #150 for girls. It's been in circulation since the early 20th century, but it really took off in the 1990s (for boys) and then from 2010 onward for girls.

The premature death of 23-year-old actor River Phoenix in October 1993 is what caught people's attention. The name was suddenly all over the news. It hit the Top 1000 list of boy names for the first time in 1994, after jumping an astounding 730 positions up the charts in a single year. This was no coincidence.

The general appeal of this name hardly needs explaining. Rivers are profoundly symbolic and have been capturing the human imagination since the dawn of time.

The word itself has been traced back to a common prehistoric (hypothetical) Indo-European root meaning "to tear, to cut" (i.e., through the land) and/or "to move swiftly." Secondary words for river are tied to a sense of "flowing".

The cradle of civilization - Mesopotamia - actually means "land between rivers" (the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers). These rivers provided annual flooding and fertile ground. Fertile ground made agriculture possible. Agriculture means reliable food sources. Reliable food sources make people want to stick around in one place. People settling in the same place tend to develop complex societies. And the rest is history. Like, literally.

The regions surrounding the Indus River Valley (India), the Nile River (Egypt) and the Yellow River (China) also gave rise to complex societies around the same time, in the same way.

All thanks to rivers. Rivers are a primary source of life.

It's no wonder that the river gods of ancient mythologies were among the most worshipped in their pantheons. They were believed to have control over the river's flow, fertility, and the well-being of the surrounding land and people.

Rivers are more than mere streams of water; they represent the rhythm of life itself. They evoke a sense of vitality and renewal, nurturing the surrounding ecosystems and serving as a lifeline for countless organisms.

Rivers embody the ceaseless flow of time, the beauty of change, and the power of resilience and adaptation.

River is arguably the ultimate nature name. Rugged beauty and flowing energy that feeds the soul. It's no wonder this name is about to jump onto the Top 100 list. The Spanish and Portuguese equivalent Rio is also rising rapidly. Pun intended.

Not only that, but the actual names of specific rivers around the world are also coming onto vogue.

The most popular river name in America right now for boys is Hudson, ranked #27 in the country. The river is named after Henry Hudson (1580-1611), notable explorer of the fabled “Northwest Passage”. Hudson is an Anglo-Scottish surname meaning “Hudde’s son,” from Hudde, an Old Saxon nickname for Howe, the medieval English form of Hugh, meaning, literally, “heart, mind and spirit.” You can't go wrong with a meaning like that!

Jordan is the second most popular river name for a boy, ranked #92 (it also makes a showing for girl's on the charts at position #504). The Jordan flows 150 miles along the eastern border of Israel through the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea; apropos, its name comes from Old Hebrew meaning “flowing down.” It's been used as a given name since the 12th century when, during a period of Christian revival, pilgrims to the Holy Lands returned with a jar of water drawn from the sacred river. The water was often used to baptize babies of both genders whilst bestowing the name Jordan.

While no longer popular today, the name Shannon ran strong in the 1970s for girls (reaching as high as #18 on the charts in 1974). Less popular for boys, it hit #101 that same year. Flowing over 200 miles, the River Shannon - "Old Wise River" - is Ireland’s longest river. According to Irish legend, the river's namesake Sinann went searching for the Well of Knowledge. When she stumbled upon it, Sinann was so eager to enhance her wisdom that she removed the lid without following the proper rites. The angry and powerful waters broke loose, forming the River Shannon, claiming her life and transforming her into the mighty river’s patron goddess.

Zaire: "The Deepest River" - The former name of the Congo River, Zaire is a Portuguese corruption of the Bantu word nzere, literally, “the river that swallows all rivers” (the Congo River, nee Zaire, is the world’s deepest river). Rich in natural resources, the Congo region attracted uninvited European colonists starting with the Portuguese in the 14th century, who introduced Christianity, literacy and trade agreements to the chiefdoms. They also coined the name Zaire from nzere. Zaire is currently ranked #495 for boys.

Clodagh: "The Famous River" ~ the River Clodiagh is a charming little river located in County Waterford (southeast Ireland). The river’s name has been traced to a Proto-Celtic *kluto- “to be known, heard about, famous,” probably named for a remote river goddess who presided over local healing and fertility. A "famous" bearer was Lady Clodagh Beresford (1879-1957), daughter of the 5th Marquess of Waterford during the last days of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, was so-named "after a very pretty mountain stream that flows through the estate [where she grew up].” If you're looking for a unique river name for a girl, Clodagh is super rare, currently ranked #12,117.

Clyde: Another "famous" river is the River Clyde, whose name is an anglicization of the Scots-Gaelic Cluaidh, most likely from the ancient Celtic Clota, a mother goddess and water deity, the patroness of the River Clyde about 2,000 years ago and whose name is thought to mean “the famed one.” In fact, Clyde arose as a surname given to clansmen dwelling on the banks of the River Clyde, the third longest river in Scotland and one which flows through the city of Glasgow. Clyde is currently ranked #688 for boys.

Guadalupe - "River of the wolf" - this is the name of a river in Spain notably used as a title for Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. In the 16th century, Mother Mary appeared before a native Aztec man near Mexico City. When the town bishop demanded proof, Mary instructed the man to pick some roses from a nearby bush. The skeptical bishop looked inside the man’s satchel he saw an image of the Blessed Mother. According to legend, Mary appeared as an Aztec princess, identifying herself as Coatlaxopeuh, an Aztec name mistaken for the Spanish “Guadalupe” (the Our Lady of Guadalupe miracle is credited with converting six million indigenous Mexicans to Christianity). It's ranked #1034 for girls and is occasionally used for boys.

Nile - "The Great River" - No good river blog worth its weight could ignore the Nile River, one of the world's most famous and historically significant rivers. The river stretches over 4,000 miles, making it the longest river in Africa (and the world). The word Nile comes from Latin Nilus via Ancient Greek Νειλος (Neilos), a translation of the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic Hapi-en-Iheb “the great river” (one of the world’s oldest surviving place names). In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), it is called רואי (Ye’or) “River of Light.” The ancient Egyptians revered the Nile as a sacred entity and associated the mighty river with various deities. Hapi, the god of the Nile, was often depicted as a figure with abundant water jars symbolizing the river's life-giving properties. Currently ranked #1430 for boys, this one is climbing the charts.

Afton is the name of a small Scottish river in Ayrshire, southwestern Scotland. Its etymology remains uncertain, perhaps from the Olde English æfen “evening; the time around sunset” or from Middle Breton (Celtic) avon  “river.  Afton was made famous by Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759-96), who was inspired by the gentle peace of his native Ayrshire countryside and the Afton river valley’s “charming, wild and romantic” scenery.  Known familiarly as “Sweet Afton” (1791), the romantic, pastoral poem begins: “Flow gently, sweet Afton, among the braes, Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise” (the poem’s narrator is asking the Afton to flow quietly because “My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream, Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream”). Burns’ poem not only inspired several place names located across America, but it also came into modest use as a gender-neutral forename starting in the mid-19th century.

Sabrina is the Goddess of the River Severn (the United Kingdom’s longest river). Its name comes from Welsh Hafren, traced to the Proto-Celtic *sabrinna, of uncertain meaning, perhaps “boundary.”  In Celtic mythology, Sabrina was the daughter of Locrinus (King of the Britons) with his German mistress Princess Estrildis. The king left his queen (Gwendolyn of Cornwall) for Estrildis and their daughter Sabrina. Outraged by the humiliation, Gwendolyn raised an army to defeat Locrinus and had Estrildis and Sabrina drowned in the River Severn. According to medieval legend, Sabrina rides her chariot as salmon swim alongside her in the powerful river which is said to reflect her many moods. Sabrina ranked #413 for girls in 2022.

And here's a little extra fun fact. London got its name from the ancient Celts who dwelled there before the arrival of those pesky Romans. It means wild and bold it was named after the river that runs through it (now known as the Thames)

It's worth noting that the usage of river names as personal names can vary based on cultural and regional factors. The significance of a particular river and its association with qualities like beauty, strength, or cultural heritage can influence the choice of using it as a personal name.

*Photo cred: Jon Flobrant on Unsplash  

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