Saturday, August 18, 2012

Weird Name Journey--Tiffany

Every now and again I come across a etymology that astounds me. Many names are fairly straightforward, some are so old their origins have been lost, while others have followed an odd & twisting journey to the forms we know today. And so, a new series of posts is born. :p

Chances are, unless you're a very devout Christian (in the Western tradition, anyway), you never really observe the holiday Epiphany. Traditionally, it marks the date the Magi came to visit Jesus, as well as his baptism years later by John the Baptist, and his first miracle of water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
In Western Christian churches, the date is set on Jan. 6--the day after the Twelve Days of Christmas--and the Magi's visit is the most emphasized aspect.
In Eastern Christian churches, it is the 3rd most important holy day of the year, celebrated on either Jan. 6 or Jan. 19 (depending on whether the church follows the Julian or Gregorian calendar); and Jesus' baptism is most celebrated.
In any case, you may notice an underlying theme between the 3 celebrated events--Jesus' first Gentile visitors, his baptism, his first miracle--all have to do the revelation that He is indeed the Son of God. And this is where Epiphany gets its name--it means "manifestation, shining upon" in Greek. Another name for Epiphany, fallen into disuse for quite some time now, is 'Theophany'--"appearance of God".

Children born on holy days were often given special commemorative names, especially during the Medieval period--Noel/Noelle & Natalie are still in use in English today; Dominic is quite fashionable; Pascal, although more common abroad, is fairly recognizable; and you'll even find records of girls called Easter.
Where on earth is all this going? Well, in the Middle Ages, Epiphany was more commonly called Theophany (which, back then, would have been roughly pronounced t'hee-OF-an-ee), and English girls born on this feast where often named Theophania. The name didn't last into modern English; however, it must have been decently used, because matronymic surnames derived from it persist. Poor Theophania was all but forgotten until 1961.
And then came Hollywood.

Even if you've not really one for old movies, chances are you recognize Audrey Hepburn and the long cigarette-holder. Breakfast at Tiffany's is still considered a classic. The titular jewelry store was named for its founder, Charles Lewis Tiffany, and this once-obscure surname leapt onto the SSA charts at #782 the year after the film was released.
Although uncommon today, Tiffany peaked at #13 in 1982 and again in 1988; and even spurred a French resurgence of its cognate Tiphaine (tee-fehn), another rare surname and forgotten Medieval prénom.