The Rise of Risë (ree-sah)

Risë Stevens as Carmen

This one took me years to figure out.

The curious name Rise debuted in the Social Security Administration data in 1942:

  • 1944: 13 baby girls named Rise
  • 1943: 7 baby girls named Rise
  • 1942: 15 baby girls named Rise [debut]
  • 1941: unlisted

“Rise”? Huh.

Rise was the 4th-most-popular debut name that year, and not far behind (in 7th place) was the somewhat similar Risa:

  • 1944: 12 baby girls named Risa
  • 1943: 5 baby girls named Risa
  • 1942: 12 baby girls named Risa [debut]
  • 1941: unlisted

Later in the ’40s, names like Reesa and Rissa popped up. And in the ’50s, names like Riesa and Reisa appeared. So there was definitely a minor Ris– trend going on in the mid-20th century, with “Rise” being the unlikely top variant.

But because “Rise” is also a vocabulary word, I had no luck pinning down the source. (It’s ridiculously hard to research word-names on the internet. I’m still stumped on Memory and Treasure.) Eventually I gave up.

Years later, as I was grabbing an image for the Finesse post, the answer landed right in front of me in the form of a cigarette ad:

Risë Stevens, Camels cigarettes, advertisement, 1953
Risë Stevens in a Camels ad © LIFE 1953

The full-page advertisement for Camels from a 1953 issue of LIFE magazine featured a “lovely star of the Metropolitan Opera” named Risë Stevens. I knew right away that this glamorous-looking lady — and her umlaut! — was the solution to the “Rise” puzzle.

Mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens was born Risë Steenberg in New York City in 1913. Her first name is pronounced “REE-sah” or “REE-suh.” Here’s how she explained it:

“It’s Norwegian; it was my grandmother’s name and my great-grandmother’s name. In school I was called everything but Rise; I was called Rose; I was called Rise {rhyming with “eyes”}; I was called Risé {rhyming with “play”}; even Teresa. In school, it was terrible; I would have arguments with the teachers. I would say, ‘I should know how to pronounce my own name.'”

One source suggested that Risë is related to the Latin word risus, meaning “laughter.”

So what was an opera singer doing in an national advertising campaign? Shouldn’t those be reserved for Hollywood stars? Well, turns out she was a Hollywood star — at least for a time. She sang professionally from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, but in the early 1940s she gave acting a shot.

Her first film, released in late 1941, was the musical The Chocolate Soldier. Notice how her umlaut was left off the movie poster:

chocolate soldier, musical, film, 1941, rise stevens

This film accounts for the 1942 debut of both “Rise” and the phonetic respelling Risa.

Risë Stevens ultimately left Hollywood and returned to the opera — and she managed to bring at least a portion of her movie audience with her:

“I probably would never have reached that vast public had I not done films,” she said. “At least, I won a lot of people over to opera.”

This explains why Risë Stevens, often called the greatest Carmen of her generation, was being featured in advertisements and on television talk shows more than a decade later. And why her unique name therefore saw peak usage in the 1950s.

If you want to know more about Risë (and hear her sing!) here’s a Risë Stevens Tribute video created by the National Endowment for the Arts.

P.S. Risë Stevens had a granddaughter named Marisa — a combination of the names of her grandmothers, Maria and Risë. Risë Stevens’ son told her that he went with the -a ending instead of the ending because he was “not going to put her through what you’ve been through.”


9 thoughts on “The Rise of Risë (ree-sah)

  1. The personally written letter my mother received after I was born from Risë Stevens confirmed what you said about “laughter”, as Risë said it is the same in Norwegian. She said she was named by her father, as I was! Working in Hospitality, I have met four other Risës in my years-all named after Risë Stevens, and all named by their fathers!-so she really got those mens attentions! Also, in spanish “risa/sonrisa” is laughter/smile (as translated by many Hispanic friends). And wg as t sge recounted about the pains of school-I went through ALL of it, and still do as I deal with the public. They read my nametag and just mangle it.

  2. My mother also received a personal letter from Risë Stevens when she inquired about the name, and as above, she wrote it meant laughter from Norwegian. I thought that all my life until I went to Oslo to present at a conference. While there I learned from nearly everyone that Norwegian, including Old Norse, does not have an ë in the language. So I think there’s still a bit of mystery left about the name!
    Risë VanFleet

  3. @Risë VanFleet – Very good point!

    I’m not sure who added the umlaut, or at what point. Maybe Risë Stevens herself added it before embarking upon a public-facing career, just so English speakers wouldn’t call her “rise” over and over again…?

    I do see Risë’s Norwegian grandmother Rise mentioned in various records (e.g., passenger lists, censuses) and her name never features an umlaut. For instance, here she is on an Ellis Island passenger arrival list from 1892 (age 34):

    rise's grandmother

    This may not mean much — old records aren’t very reliable for perfect renderings of names — but the fact that I don’t find a single instance is telling.

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