About Names: “Cleveland Evans: Amber still a somewhat rare jewel among first names”

Amber Ruffin, star of “The Amber Ruffin Show” on Peacock (Public Domain)

Amber Ruffin, star of “The Amber Ruffin Show” on Peacock (Public Domain)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his November 20th column, he looks at the name Amber.

Amber and Lacey hit bookstores again on Tuesday.

Last year, Omaha-raised comedian Amber Ruffin and sister Lacey Lamar’s “You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey”, a humorous look at the serious subject of racism, was a bestseller. November 22 their sequel, “The World Record Book of Racist Stories”, goes on sale.

Amber is a fossilized tree resin, usually brownish-yellow, used as a gemstone since the Stone Age. The word comes from Arabic “’anbar”, originally meaning “ambergris”, a substance secreted by sperm whales used in perfumes. Both ambergris and amber are commonly found along the shores of the Baltic Sea.

In the early 19th century parents, inspired by flower names like Lily and Violet, started naming daughters after gems like Ruby, Pearl and Opal.

Unlike flower names, at first gem names like Pearl, Garnet and Beryl were also given to boys. In the 1850 census, there were 29 male and 16 female Ambers. Some male Ambers were probably inspired by the rare surname Amber, itself perhaps a form of Ambler (“enameller”).

The oldest two women Ambers in 1850 were free Black women. Amber Whorton, age 90, lived with husband, Wellcome, also 90, in Cherokee County, Alabama. New Jersey-born Amber Harris, 57, lived with 25-year-old waiter Charles Harris in New York City.

As neither of these women appear in the 1860 census, it’s possible their names are mistakes. The oldest example in multiple censuses, Amber Read of Swanzey, New Hampshire, was born in 1821.

Though by 1880, Amber became primarily female, it stayed rare and vanished from the top 1,000 in 1917. It was revived by Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 novel “Forever Amber”.