The Arabic word Ayatollah (ayatu-llah), which is a title for a Shiite religious leader in Iran, literally means “sign of god.”
Americans started hearing this word more often in the late ’70s, when Iran’s Ruhollah Khomeini, typically called “Ayatollah Khomeini” by the U.S. press, led the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (whose wives included Farah and Soraya).
From that point onward, Khomeini became the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The year the revolution ended and Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the country, we see the baby name Ayatollah appear in the U.S. baby name data for the first and only time:
1979: 6 baby boys named Ayatollah
What are your thoughts on “Ayatollah” as a baby name?
The last Shah of Iran had three wives — first Fawzia, second Soraya, and finally Farah: Farah Diba, who was a 21-year-old commoner when she married the king in Tehran at the very end of 1959.
The Arabic name Farah, which means “joy,” appeared for the first time in the SSA’s baby name data the next year:
1964: 11 baby girls named Farah
1963: 13 baby girls named Farah
1962: 14 baby girls named Farah
1961: 12 baby girls named Farah
1960: 19 baby girls named Farah [debut]
The couple went on to have four children: Reza (the male heir the Shah had been waiting for), Farahnaz, Ali-Reza, and Leila.
Little Reza never got a chance to rule Iran, though, because the royal family was forced to flee during the Iranian Revolution at the end of the 1970s. By the time the Shah died of cancer in 1980, the new leader of the country was Ayatollah Khomeini.
The similar name Farrah first appeared in the data in the late ’60s. It would go on to see a dramatic spike in usage in 1976-1977 thanks to Farrah Fawcett (whose name at birth was actually Ferrah).
Another similar name, Fara, predates both Farah and Farrah on the charts. Fara has been in the U.S. data since the 1910s. (Other unexpected Sara- and Clara-clones from that era include Flara, Gara, Para, and Nara.)
Do you like the name Farah? Which spelling do you prefer?
P.S. The male names Reza and Alireza started appearing in the U.S. data in the ’60s and ’70s, respectively.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, married three times (and divorced twice). His second wife was the half-Iranian, half-German Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari. They wed in Tehran in 1951.
Soraya’s first name is the Persian form of Thurayya, from the Arabic term al-Thurayya, which refers to the Pleiades star cluster (literally, “the many little ones”).
From December of 1954 to February of 1955, the imperial couple paid a long visit to the U.S., traveling to several different locations: Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Sun Valley (Idaho), and New York City. And (as with Twiggy and Nikita) the press coverage of their trip led to the debut of the name Soraya on the U.S. baby name charts in 1955:
1961: 39 baby girls named Soraya
1960: 24 baby girls named Soraya
1959: 20 baby girls named Soraya
1958: 28 baby girls named Soraya
1957: 6 baby girls named Soraya
1955: 6 baby girls named Soraya [debut]
Usage jumped in 1958, the year the Shah divorced Soraya (because she wasn’t able to produce an heir). And it stayed relatively high after that, because the U.S. press continued to report on the “sad queen” for years to come — her travels, her rumored romances, her attempt to kick off acting career in the mid-1960s.
What do you think of the name Soraya?
(And who were the Shah’s other two wives? The first was an Egyptian princess named Fawzia, sister-in-law of Farida, and the third was an Iranian commoner named Farah who we’ll talk more about tomorrow…)
Milani, Abbas. The Shah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012.