Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his March 28th column, he looks at the history of the name Rita.
Rita is a short form of Margherita or Margarita, Italian and Spanish forms of Margaret, from Greek margarites (pearl). The fame of legendary St. Margaret of Antioch, swallowed by a dragon that burst open because of her holiness, made her name common across medieval Europe.
Rita became a name in its own right through St. Rita of Cascia (1381-1457). Born Margherita Lotti, Rita was married against her will at age 12 to wealthy but violently abusive Paolo Mancini. Over 18 years, her patience and prayers reformed him. After Paolo was stabbed to death in a vendetta, Rita’s example of forgiveness ended the feud. She entered a convent at Cascia, legendarily levitated into its courtyard by her patron saints.
Rita ranked between 52nd and 60th all through the 1940s. As Rita Hayworth’s reign as “Love Goddess” waned, the name began its inevitable retreat, finally leaving the top 1,000 in 2003. Novelist Rita Mae Brown (1944), recording artist Rita Coolidge (1945) and comedian Rita Rudner (1953) are famous Ritas born during Hayward’s heyday. Actress and film producer Rita Wilson (1956) is newsworthy now, as she and husband Tom Hanks were among the first celebrities to announce that they had tested positive for COVID-19.