Where did the baby name Yma come from in 1954?

Yma Sumac album "Mambo!" (1954)
Yma Sumac album from 1954

The name Yma debuted in the U.S. baby name data in the mid-1950s:

  • 1958: unlisted
  • 1957: 7 baby girls named Yma [peak]
  • 1956: unlisted
  • 1955: unlisted
  • 1954: 5 baby girls named Yma [debut]
  • 1953: unlisted
  • 1952: unlisted

It may look like parents were simply experimenting with the spelling of Amy, but Yma actually had a specific source: exotica singer Yma Sumac (pronounced EE-mah SOO-mak). Known as the “Peruvian songbird,” she had a four-and-a-half-octave range and a very distinctive sound.

Yma Sumac album "Legend of the Sun Virgin" (1952)
Yma Sumac album from 1952

Originally from northern highlands of Peru, Yma Sumac moved to the U.S. in the mid-1940s and released her first album in 1950. Here’s a review of her August 1950 performance at the Hollywood Bowl:

For the first few bars of a Peruvian folk chant called High Andes, the full-figured Peruvian girl onstage rumbled roundly at the bottom of the contralto range. Then, to their astonishment, she soared effortlessly up a full four octaves, began trilling like a canary at the top of coloratura. At the end of her first song, the audience was still too surprised to raise more than warm applause. The second, Tumpa (Earthquake), brought cheers; after the third, a pyrotechnical Inca Hymn to the Sun, the applause and cheers swelled to a roar for encores.

Here’s Yma lip-syncing to “Tumpa”:

She was born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo in the early 1920s. For her very first radio performance — in Peru, in 1942 — she used the stage name “Imma Sumack.” By the time she reached the U.S., she had settled upon the spelling “Yma Sumac.”

According to some sources, this name was part of her mother’s full name. Perhaps more importantly, it was the name of a character in the Quechua-language Peruvian drama Ollantay, thought to be of Inca origin. Often spelled Ima Sumac, the character’s name means “how beautiful” in Quechua.

Do you like the name Yma? (Do you like it more or less than Amy?)


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