About Names: Why Oprah Winfrey has such a rare first name

Oprah Winfrey @AP

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his January 29th column, he looks at the history of the names Oprah and Orpah.

Multi-talented Oprah Winfrey, nominated for an Oscar in 1985 for her supporting role in “The Color Purple,“ hosted the most successful television talk show ever between 1986 and 2011. When Oprah was born, her Aunt Ida named her Orpah after a character in the Bible’s Book of Ruth. In 2008, Winfrey explained her family, unfamiliar with the name, pronounced and spelled it “Oprah” from her infancy, though it remains “Orpah” on her birth certificate.

After the Reformation a few Protestant parents discovered Orpah. The 1850 United States census includes 105 Orpahs. Orpha was much more common; 2,156 are found in 1850. Most name dictionaries assume Orpha is an alteration of Orpah, but don’t explain why it was more popular.

A few parents named daughters Oprah at the start of Winfrey’s fame — 37 Oprahs were born in 1987. But 2007 was the last year more than four were born. Oprah, like Madonna and Cher, is so famous as a unique one-name celebrity, parents know they’d be mercilessly teased for naming a baby Oprah. It could only become popular for babies after Winfrey’s lifetime.

Want to know more? Read on to find out more about Oprahs and Orpahs in history! Note one minor error: The sentence about Orphea and Orpheus should refer to the 1850 census, not the 1950 one.