About Names: The Barbara boom brought big names

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his April 24th column, he looks at the history of the name Barbara.

Barbra Streisand, famed for these and many other artistic triumphs, was born Barbara Joan Streisand 76 years ago on April 23rd. First Lady Barbara Bush (1925-2018), who died a week ago at age 92, is the only other Barbara whose renown rivals Streisand’s.

Barbara comes from a Greek word meaning “foreign.” In the seventh century, stories about St. Barbara, a third century martyr who survived many tortures before her father beheaded her, were first told. Though modern historians doubt she ever existed, Barbara was a hugely popular saint all over medieval Europe. By 1400, the name was rare in England. Around the year 1550, it revived, and Barbara ranked among the top 30 names for 17th century English girls. It was about the only saint’s name to rise instead of fall after the Reformation. Most 17th century Barbaras in England and America were Anglican or Catholic.

When Barbara Bush was born in 1925, the name had risen to 22nd most popular. Then, in 1926, Broadway chorus girl Ruby Stevens saw a poster for Fitch’s play and renamed herself Barbara Stanwyck. She became a star the next year, when Barbara first broke into the top 10. Though Barbara would have been popular without Stanwyck, her film career pushed it to its peak when she claimed her first Oscar nomination for the tearjerker “Stella Dallas” in 1937. In 1938, more than 3.4 percent of newborn girls were named Barbara, ranking it second only to Mary. It stayed at No. 2 until 1945, and in the top 10 until 1959.

Want to know more? Read on to find out more about Barbaras in history!