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Friday, January 6, 2012

Breakfast at Epiphany's

A famous movie starring Audrey Hepburn. 

Stained glass lamps. 

A zillion little girls born in the eighties.

What do they all have to do with the glum looking gentlemen in the picture?

Today is the feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men (or Magi) brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The word "epiphany" comes from two Greek words, epi ("to") and phainein ("show"), the idea being that with the visit of the wise men, Christ's divinity was being revealed or manifested to the greater world of the Gentiles (beyond the shepherds abiding in the fields). 

But in the Middle Ages, there was also another word for the feast day, which combined  phainein with the Greek word meaning "God": theos. Theophaneia meant "the showing of a God". In Old French, this got corrupted to "Tiphanie", and baby girls born on or near this feast day in the Middle Ages were often christened with this name.

Some people ended up with it as their surname, like the famous American jewellers and stained glass artists of the Tiffany family to whom we owe beautiful lamps such as this one:
Tiffany lamp

But with the rise of Protestantism, it was no longer popular to name children after the feast days of the Catholic Church. Tiffany fell out of favour for centuries as a first name. Its resurgence in recent years is due to the immense popularity of the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's (and doubtless the doomed hope on the part of parents that their baby would grow up to be as beautiful and glamorous as its star, Audrey Hepburn). 

When I used the term "zillion" above, I was speaking scientifically, as you can see from this listing on the US Social Security Administration's cool website about baby names, with "Tiffany" pretty firmly in the top twenty from 1980 to 1989.  Significantly, it wasn't even in the top 1000 before 1962. But poor Tiffany. Looks like she's in freefall, beaten out by Isabella, Emma, Olivia, Sophia, and Ava and so many others.

SSA logo: link to Social Security home page

Popularity of a  Name


Popularity of the female name Tiffany
Year of birth Rank
2010 311
2009 281
2008 250
2007 211
2006 210
2005 196
2004 175
2003 148
2002 140
2001 127
2000 101
1999 80
1998 67
1997 61
1996 52
1995 46
1994 35
1993 33
1992 32
1991 27
1990 23
1989 16
1988 13
1987 18
1986 17
1985 23
1984 14
1983 14
1982 13
1981 14
1980 14
1979 28
1978 32
1977 34
1976 32
1975 37
1974 41
1973 52
1972 61
1971 62
1970 99
1969 143
1968 178
1967 192
1966 242
1965 389
1964 461
1963 696
1962 784
Note: Rank 1 is the most popular, rank 2 is the next most popular, and so forth. Data are not shown for some of the years you specified because the name Tiffany was not in the top 1000 names for those years. Name data are from Social Security card applications for births that occurred in the United States.

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.