Last week’s post on Vera Zorina helped me discover another interesting name: Tanaquil (pronounced tan-a-keel). It belonged to French-born American ballerina Tanaquil “Tanny” Le Clercq (1929-2000) who, like Zorina, had been married to famous choreographer George Balanchine.
Tanaquil Le Clercq was named after the legendary Etruscan prophet Tanaquil, whose omen-reading abilities helped her husband become the fifth king of Rome (616-578 B.C.).
The Etruscan rendering of the name Tanaquil is “Thanchvil.” The Etruscans had a relatively small pool of first names (praenomina) to draw from, so it’s possible that many Etruscan women were named Thanchvil. In fact, the MFA in Boston owns a sarcophagus (dated 350–300 B.C.) for Thanchvil Tarnai and her husband Larth Tetnies.
The Etruscan language has long been extinct, so there’s no telling what Thanchvil means. (In lieu of that, here are some of the other Etruscan female names that we know about: Thana/Thania, Ramtha/Ranthia, Hastia/Fastia, Aula/Aulia, Vela/Velia, Setha, Arnthi, Larthi.)
Getting back to Tanny…tragically, her professional career was cut short when she was stricken with polio in 1956 at age 27. She was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life. The “stranger-than-fiction twist” is that, at age 15, she had actually danced the part of a polio victim at a March of Dimes benefit, and Balanchine had danced the part of polio itself:
In the final movement — a sunny allegro — she reappeared in a wheelchair, children tossed dimes, and she rose and danced again. What at the time was a simple exercise in entertaining a charity audience acquired in retrospect the weight of an omen or a hex. Balanchine, who was deeply mystical, was haunted by the notion that he had somehow brought on her fate.
Makes the fact that she was named after a noted omen-reader seem rather foreboding, doesn’t it?
Bonfante, Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante. The Etruscan Language: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Looking for an under-the-radar girl name with a retro feel?
A few years ago I combed though a bunch of IMDb pages looking for interesting female names associated with old films (1910s-1940s).
Most of the names I spotted — names like Mabel, Maisie, Hazel, Hattie, Elsie, Selma, Bessie, and Betty — were ones I expected to see. But I did manage to collect thousands of rarities, many of which have never appeared in the SSA data before.
Want to check out all these unusual names? I thought so! To make things interesting I’ll post the Z-names first and go backwards, letter by letter.
Zabette de Chavalons was a character played by actress Bebe Daniels in the film Volcano! (1926).
Zabie Elliot was a character played by actress Mary Alden in the film The Broken Butterfly (1919).
Zada L’Etoile was a character played by actress Sylvia Breamer in the Cecil B. DeMille-directed film We Can’t Have Everything (1918).
Zena Dare was an actress who appeared in films during the 1920s and 1930s. She was born in England in 1887. Zena Keefe was an actress who appeared in films during the 1910s and 1920s. She was born in California in 1898. Zena was also a character name in multiple films, including The Code of Honor (short, 1916) and The New York Peacock (1917).
Vera Zorina, often credited simply as “Zorina,” was a German-Norwegian ballerina.
She was born Eva Brigitta Hartwig in Berlin in 1917 and was always called “Brigitta” by friends. But the public knew her by the Russian-sounding stage name “Vera Zorina,” which she adopted while dancing with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in the mid-1930s.
She was introduced to American film audiences in The Goldwyn Follies (1938). The next year, she had a starring role in On Your Toes (1939).
In response, a handful of American parents named their baby girls Zorina around that time, and the name ended up debuting on the U.S. charts:
1940: 6 baby girls named Zorina
1939: 6 baby girls named Zorina [debut]
Zorina’s film career — as well as her first marriage, to the famous choreographer George Balanchine — lasted until the mid-1940s.
The name, on the other hand, is still around. In 2015 it was given to 5 baby girls.