Where did the baby name Thembi come from in 1971?

The Pharoah Sanders album "Thembi" (1971)
Pharoah Sanders album

The name Thembi first appeared in the U.S. baby name data in 1971:

  • 1973: 6 baby girls named Thembi
  • 1972: 7 baby girls named Thembi
  • 1971: 10 baby girls named Thembi [debut]
  • 1970: unlisted
  • 1969: unlisted


Because, in mid-1971, free-jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders released a song called “Thembi” on an album also called Thembi. The title track was “named in honor of his South African wife.”

The name Thembi (pronounced TEM-bee) is typically short for Zulu and Xhosa names like Thembisa, Thembisile and Thembekile.

Thembi came out several albums after Pharoah Sanders’ most successful album, Karma (1969), which was likely the thing that gave the baby name Karma a boost in 1970.

Pharoah Sanders himself was born in Arkansas in 1940 with the name Farrell Sanders:

Mr. Sanders assures me that the myths about his nickname “Pharoah” […] are false — it didn’t come from space traveler Sun Ra or from the music criticism of poet/playwright Amiri Baraka. “It was just a matter of paperwork. When I joined the union in New York City, they had a space for the artist’s name, so I just put [Pharoah] down.”

Because he altered the spelling of the Egyptian word pharaoh, it’s pretty easy to attribute the 1970s usage of the baby name Pharoah to him. (The traditional spelling, Pharaoh, didn’t emerge in the data until the end of the decade.)


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