Samantha: The Ultimate New Classic

Jul 22nd 2010

How well do you know the name Samantha?

It's surely familiar. Samantha has become a modern all-American girl name, still cruising along a decades-long run of popularity. It's long and soft, but the nickname Sam gives it balance (and a little attitude, too). The character Samantha Jones, played by Kim Cattrall on Sex and the City, has become the name's standard bearer. In fact, someone recently remarked to me that Cattrall's character is "such a perfect Samantha!" Which she is. Except she isn't.

For those of us who weren't yet following baby name trends 45 years ago, here's a little wakeup call. Take a look at the number of Samanthas born in the U.S. from 1963-1965:



At the 1963 starting point of that graph, Samantha was a total obscurity. It ranked well out of the top 1000, behind the likes of Joycelyn and Elvia. But in September 1964, a little sitcom called Bewitched debuted with a magical main character named Samantha. For perspective, that upward curve is steeper than for the name Miley when Hannah Montana hit the air.

Why Samantha? The name's precise origins are unknown, but most agree it was invented in America, probably in the late 18th century. It was modestly familiar in the 1800s, used at about the same rate as Permelia and Almeda. Then it faded away. So when the '60s sitcom creators chose Samantha for their charming suburban witch, they were clearly aiming for a quirky antique. The name set the character apart from the mere mortals around her, and fit her in with magical relatives like Endora and Hagatha.

They must have been flabbergasted to discover that they'd just named a generation of American girls. The nickname Sam made the name kicky for its times, and Elizabeth Montgomery's irresistible sparkle sealed the deal. A "timeless classic" was born. Meanwhile Permelia and Almeda still languish in obscurity. If the Bewitched folks had chosen differently, perhaps Sam would still just mean Samuel and the all-American girl would be called Perry or Al.

Today, it's almost impossible to hear Samantha as a trendy celebrity-fueled baby name. Which brings us back to Sex and the City and Samantha Jones. That perfect Samantha is actually a perfect anachronism. The character celebrated her 50th birthday in a 2008 movie, so she was born in 1958. Not likely. Nedra, Beulah and Lucretia were all more common baby names back then -- and it really wasn't so long ago.

Comments

1
By Sarah-with-an-H (not verified)
July 22, 2010 10:58 AM

Whenever I hear Samantha I will always think of the American Girl dolls/books.

2
By Fifi (not verified)
July 22, 2010 11:06 AM

I was supposed to be named Samantha back in 1983, but my mom was threatened with disownment if she didn't name me after her mother (after all, who wouldn't want to be named after someone who seriously threatens to disown their child). I ended up saddled with a very weird, very foreign name, and have wished my whole life my mom had just grown a spine and named me Samantha...

3
By hyz
July 22, 2010 11:11 AM

Wonderful post! And timely for me, as I've just been watching a lot of Bewitched on Hulu. It's nearly impossible for me to think of Samantha as odd/obscure/exotic as Permelia, etc., but it makes sense. What about the other witch names from the show? Tabitha seems to be popping up now and again, and Clara is certainly pretty popular. Even Agatha (I'm assuming Hagatha was their invention, right? Hag + Agatha?) is coming back. I'm trying to remember the male names, too--there's an Uncle Arthur, for sure, and I think Samantha's father is Maurice. Those don't seem quite so adventurous as the female names--rather like real life, I guess.

4
July 22, 2010 11:40 AM

Darren! Darren needs to come back into vogue. Probably won't happen anytime soon, but I've always liked it.

5
July 22, 2010 11:46 AM

I agree with hyz that it's impossible to think of Samantha in the same class as Permelia. Maybe because I was born long after Bewitched, and the American Girl became popular when I was young? But I feel like there was always at least one Samantha in my grade every year. It's bizarre to think of it as a new and exotic name!

6
By hyz
July 22, 2010 11:47 AM

Elizabeth T., don't you mean Darwin? Or was it Derwood? Darryl? Denton? Dagwood? lol. If I knew a Darrin, I think I'd be forced to call him Derwood at least some of the time.

What about Gladys and Abner? They'd make an edgy hipster sibset today, maybe....

7
By Sica
July 22, 2010 11:49 AM

Interestingly enough, the American Girl books based on Samantha's life takes place in the early 1900's. Either it was an oversight on the author's part (that the character likely wouldn't have had that name..) or not, maybe she did know it was an obscure name at the time and chose it anyway.

8
July 22, 2010 12:24 PM

The cousin was named Serena, a name probably most associated with Gossip Girl's Serena van der Woodsen. I happen to like the way it sounds and looks, but it rhymes with my name so I wouldn't use it.

Then there's the noisy neighbor, Louise. Though I like Louisa better.

9
July 22, 2010 12:41 PM

That should be nosey, not noisy...though I guess she could be called that, too.

10
By Eo (not verified)
July 22, 2010 12:50 PM

One of the things that slightly bothers me about the prevalence of "Samantha" is the fact that the wonderful nickname "Sam" is now unisex. Feel the same way about "Alex". There seem to be so few names that get to remain the province of boys.

I adore Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens, and can well see why the name took off. By the time her character was given the name Samantha, it had become rather patrician, and it fit E. Montgomery with her very Eastern, finishing school accent. Interesting, since, as the daughter of movie star Robert Montgomery, she was a thoroughly Hollywood baby-- wonder if they sent her East to school?

Red-haired British actress Samantha Eggar was very big in the swinging Sixties, she starred with Terence Stamp and Cary Grant, among others, and she was born before World War II.
I'm always fascinated by the "outliers" who receive an unusual name for their time, and then decades later, it explodes into popularity. Do they feel vindicated, in a sense, or deprived of their uniqueness?

Unfortunately, Samantha does now seem tired to me through over-use...

11
July 22, 2010 12:53 PM

Oops! My childhood memory of "Bewitched" was that Samantha's husband was Darren, not Darrin. Sigh. I prefer Darren. :),

12
July 22, 2010 1:03 PM

I've never been a *huge* fan of Samantha the name, though my American Girl doll, Samantha, is still safely tucked away in my parents' attic somewhere...

13
July 22, 2010 1:04 PM

It's funny because I think of Samantha among the common 1980s names that I grew up hearing(and therefore don't really like,) like Melissa, Jessica, Jennifer, Ashley, Britney, Amanda, etc. It doesn't seem classic to me at all.

14
By hyz
July 22, 2010 2:46 PM

Elizabeth T., I would've thought Darren, too, but IMDB spells it Darrin, so I went by that.

And Louise is actually the wife of Darrin's boss, Larry Tate. The nosy neighbor is Gladys Kravitz. Good call on Serena, though--I had forgotten about her.

Karyn, I agree, I think of Samantha as a totally 80s name--I knew more than a few growing up. When I was about 6 or 8, I thought Samantha and Amanda were the coolest names, and wished that I were called one of those. I'm over it now, though. ;)

15
By Sarada (not verified)
July 22, 2010 3:21 PM

What a great backstory on Samantha. It reminds me of Jennifer, which, prior to Jennifer Jones, was so exotic and unusual. It was the French version of Guinevere. At least, if I'm remembering correctly.

16
July 22, 2010 5:13 PM

wow, great post, laura! love it.

my primary associations are 1) the american girl doll and 2) bewitched.

i know this name should sound dated to me, as an 80s/90s name (more 90s, really), but it doesn't. possibly because i didn't grow up with ANY. i don't think there were any in my school. so it doesn't feel overused to me at all. it's so odd to me to hear it grouped with something like amanda, which is Very Dated to me (and i don't like it). samantha does sound very classic to my ear.

it actually used to be one of my very favorite names, and i do still like it, but as i've gotten older, my tastes have become slightly less frilly (my favorites used to be things like samantha, cassandra, tabitha, etc...all very witchy names, now that i think about it).

17
July 22, 2010 5:20 PM

Sarada, Jennifer is Cornish. Guinevere is Norman French. Gwenhyfar is Welsh. There are a number of other forms as well.

18
July 22, 2010 5:49 PM

I see Sam as the all American girl kind of name. I see Samantha right there beside Jennifer, Melissa, Jessica, Ashley & Stephanie. I know that might not make a tonne of sense, I don't know if it's because it's the longer version or what, but I see Sam as having some character still, where Samantha feels tired.

19
By moll
July 22, 2010 6:01 PM

Sica, I've wondered that about at least the first batch of American Girl characters. The authors did historical research, and I would have guessed that would include names. But most of the names of the early characters existed at the time of the stories, but were uncommon. Artistic license? Trying to appeal to girls of the 80s and 90s? Or, maybe to the authors the more representative Mary, Helen, and Elizabeth were just too boring.

From the comments here, it looks like even though Bewitched without a doubt is responsible for launching this name, for women who grew up in the late 80s and beyond, the all-American girl image of Samantha is in part due to, well, the American Girl.

20
By Birgitte (not verified)
July 22, 2010 6:04 PM

Samantha is my husband's favorite girl name. Not because of Bewitched (nor the American Girl dolls), but because of Stargate's Samantha Carter.

21
By Andrea B (not verified)
July 22, 2010 8:07 PM

My great-great grandmother, born in 1844, was named Samantha. I always found that interesting as it was such an uncommon name back then.

22
By TM (not verified)
July 22, 2010 8:55 PM

I've considered Tabitha on and off. I like it a lot, but I'm not so sure about the nicknames Tab or Tabby. It reminds me too much of a cat name. I also love Sadie, but everyone tells me it's a bit dog name-ish.

Samantha, to me, is actually very pretty if I listen to it with "new" ears and not a as another Jennifer, Ashley, Stephanie type name.

23
By Amy3
July 22, 2010 10:04 PM

The name to me is pure Bewitched, which I loved. I never knew any Samanthas growing up, and I guess I'm surprised by that since I was born in the late 60s. However, I know of several now and it's one of my daughter's favorite names. She seems to particularly like it because of the Sam nn. Her first dog on NintenDogs was named Sammy (for Samantha--the game only allows 7 characters).

I really like Tabitha and kind of wonder why we didn't consider that one, but I don't remember it even coming up when we were naming our daughter.

24
July 22, 2010 10:39 PM

By now, it's hard to think of Samantha Jones of Sex and the City being named anything else. But if her creators had actually looked for a name popular in 1958, which names should they have considered?

In the Top 25 were Mary, Susan, Linda, Karen, Patricia, Debra, Deborah, Cynthia, Barbara, Donna, Pamela, Nancy, Cheryl, Kathy, Sandra, Brenda, Sharon, Diane, Lisa, Carol, Kathleen, Elizabeth, Julie, Debbie, and Cindy.

Which one fits her best? My choice would be Pamela or Julie. Definitely not Cindy or Karen.

25
By George Washington (not verified)
July 22, 2010 10:45 PM

It seems that the show's creators purposefully tried to think of odd/eccentric names for the witch characters on the show to set them apart from the mortals.

Samantha, Serena, Endora, Tabitha, Arthur, Clara, Esmerelda. I don't think any of these were exactly "the girl next door" names. Especially Arthur, but I digress...

It seems to me that the stars aligned with Samantha. The name is a pretty good one, the character is very likable, and Elizabeth Montgomery is a beautiful woman. The show made an under-used name comfortable and homey the way Shirley Temple did for her name a generation prior.

26
July 22, 2010 11:23 PM

Samantha, to me, seems like one of those all-encompassing names - like Elizabeth or Margaret or Katherine - that can change it's personality to fit the bearer. A great example of this (and the name's popularity) would be in the most recent pledge-class of my sorority there were three girls named Samantha. One goes by the full Samantha, another by Sammie, and the third just by Sam. Samantha is the academic and girlish one of the three, she spends a lot of time in the library and she's also the best dressed. Sammie is fun and outgoing, she's got a lot of friends and she's always down for a good time. Sam is a bit of a tomboy but she loves to party, she's very adventurous and also a great athlete. These three girls have chosen the nickname that best suits them and I think they've done so impeccably well! No wonder the name is so popular and attractive- it has the power to suit a number of personalities- not many other names can claim that!

27
By Kern (not verified)
July 23, 2010 12:11 AM

TM--I love the name Sadie. Doesn't remind me of a dog name at all! I also like Maizie in that vein.

28
By Guest (not verified)
July 23, 2010 2:00 AM

Maybe the American Girls author deliberately chose the names she did (a) for marketing reasons; (b) because they were personal favorites; (c) because each "girl" was supposed to have come from an interesting and literate family, she wanted to emphasize this by giving the "girl" a name that would NOT have been the Jennifer of its day.

29
By elliespen (not verified)
July 23, 2010 3:21 AM

Actually, choosing Samantha as a name for a character born in 1958 would not have been quite as much as a stretch as, say, Beulah. In July of 1956, "High Society," Grace Kelly's final movie before her retirement from acting, was released (a remake of the 1940 classic "The Philadelphia Story"). It was made shortly after Grace Kelly's engagement to Prince Rainier of Monaco and was fairly high-profile as a result. In this movie, Kelly's character is named Tracy Samantha Lord, and her love interest, Bing Crosby, sings a catchy little tune for her entitled, "I Love You, Samantha." While not as popular as the movie's main love theme, "True Love," it is altogether possible that Samantha's fictional parents would have seen the movie and heard the song, and liked it enough to give to their daughter a year or so later.

30
July 23, 2010 9:17 AM

LOVE LOVE LOVE the name Samantha because of ALL the reasons others have already listed. It is slighty romantic, has a cute boyish nn, can adapt to personality or the bearer, etc. Bewitched was a favorite show growing up. We almost named my DD Samantha Renee. Jokingly considered Tabitha too as it means gazelle and she was jumping around so much in utero that it seemed appropriate.
It is funny that I didn't know any Samantha's but did know a ton of Jennifer's, a few Amanda's, Heather's, etc. It also does have the American Girl Doll connection but that is not a negative for me. Would anyone believe that I have never seen ANY SITC?

31
July 23, 2010 9:30 AM

zoerhenne,
i've never seen any sex in/and (i never know which it is) the city either! it's never interested me. but i like the side effect of that particular samantha not at all coloring the name for me.

32
By Guest (not verified)
July 23, 2010 9:28 AM

Samantha - I agree with many (of I believe my peers age-wise) that growing up in the 80s/90s I think of it in the Jennifer etc. vein. And although many of these Samanthas may have been named because their parents were bewitched, I associate it most with Alyssa Milano's character on Who's the Boss?

Serena - Most associate it with Serena Williams. Totally different connotation to me than Gossip Girl-esque high society name.

Sadie - Grew up loving the name because of a girl a few years ahead of me in school but have encountered WAY too many dogs named the same to want to bestow it on a daughter.

33
By Guest (not verified)
July 23, 2010 9:59 AM

If "Bewitched" were being cast today, they'd have to go farther afield to come up with names that sound both magical and uncommon:

Demelza (Cornish place name famously used in the Poldark books for a memorable female character)

Jerusha (great under-used Biblical-- a good alternative for those who are still afraid of the equally lovely Jemima)

Damaris

Thomasyn

Romola

Lucasta

Amarantha

Hebe

Christabel

Mehitabel

Persis

Zenobia

Aphra

Clelia

Iole

Melangell

Wow, it's interesting how many names lend themselves to that "magical" vibe. Maybe the key is that they be unusual, but traditional and in some cases, archaic. It helps if they are multisyllabic, I suppose, but "Tyne" and "Fleur" fit right in and are just as charismatic.

I find I like this "magical" style, although Amarantha might be bordering on too frilliana for my taste...

34
By Eo (not verified)
July 23, 2010 10:01 AM

Hey, I posted above, but it came out as guest instead of Eo. Oh, I see, I'm using a different server. Never mind!

35
July 23, 2010 10:32 AM

Hi Eo--

Many (obviously not all) of the "witch" names on Bewitched had specifically 'sorcerous' associations. for example, Endora for the Witch of Endor. In that vein I would suggest Medea, Circe, Jacquetta (for Jacquetta Woodville, mother-in-law of Edward IV of England, who was accused of witchcraft), Walpurga, Geraldine (for Gerald Gardner), Lamia, Lilith, Marie-Laveau (for the voodoo queen of New Orleans), Tituba and Bethiah (these last two from the Salem witch trials).

36
July 23, 2010 10:52 AM

Eo:

I was thinking of "Samantha, but not" uncommon names, and Acantha and Amaranth were two on my list. A few other ideas, with similar sounds but very different feels from Samantha:

Santana: Latin feel, warm and open
Sahara: Individualistic, rugged, somewhat exotic
Sabrina: Still familiar, but not as common
Samara: There's the magic. The "girl from The Ring" name, it can exude power, but it's also normal sounding.

37
July 23, 2010 11:00 AM

linnaeus,
sabrina already has witchy connotations: sabrina the teenage witch, anyone?

the only names i can think of are harry potter names...heh. arabella, luna, minerva, bellatrix, etc. and maybe zelda.

38
July 23, 2010 11:10 AM

emilyrae:

True enough. It's a cultural reference point thing, I guess. I think Samara before Sabrina, but that's just the male J-horror geek in me speaking.

39
July 23, 2010 11:22 AM

linnaeus,
oh, yes, definitely. i didn't actually watch sabrina (we didn't even get the channel), but it was on as i was growing up, so i definitely remember hearing about it. maybe i had friends who watched it... i always forget that samara was the name of the girl in the ring. it was a good choice though, i think. other witch names that come to mind:

jadis (chronicles of narnia)
serefina (his dark materials)
willow (buffy the vampire slayer)

40
July 23, 2010 11:59 AM

Well, if we're just talking about witch names, there's:

Severina: A cognate of Sabrina, with more danger; connects nicely to Severus Snape
Hazel: Common, from witch hazel, of course
Mandrake: very male-sounding (it has a "Man" and a "Drake"!), it is a plant closely associated with witchcraft
Tarrasque: The name of a beast that terrorized the Tarascon region, it has been turned into a famously tough monster in Dungeons & Dragons
Delphi: after the Oracle
Belladonna: beautiful lady or deadly nightshade, take your pick
Elvira: my aunt's name, among more commonly known sources

Dungeons & Dragons came out with a gothic horror world called Ravenloft, and it's chock full of witchlike names. I can talk more about that later.

41
July 23, 2010 12:06 PM

linnaeus:
"Elvira: my aunt's name, among more commonly known sources"
ha!

42
July 23, 2010 12:13 PM

@ Eo -- wow I've been reading this blog too long. I saw the post by "Guest #33" and thought "That really sounds like something Eo would say." Lo and behold....

43
July 23, 2010 12:32 PM

Sara no H, I had the exact same thought. Eo, you have a very identifiable style! (And that's a good thing.)

Miriam, I had never heard of Jacquetta Woodville, but I have a student who will be in my class next semester named Jacquetta W00ds. I wonder if anyone has ever brought up J. Woodville to her?

44
By Eustace (again) (not verified)
July 23, 2010 1:04 PM

About 15 years ago, I sang in a choir in Italy, and one of the Italian girls was named Samantha. It was such an exotic and unusual name in Italy that every time we called roll, the director, as a joke, would stop and sigh out her name as if she were a Victorian romantic heroine. Normal as the name is to me, I can't think of it now without hearing his "Samanta! Samaaanta! Samaaaaaaaanta!"

45
July 23, 2010 1:42 PM

One of my girlfriends has two children under the age 5 called Jake and Samantha. Anyone who came of age in the '80s will probably remember that Jake Ryan and Samantha Baker were the lead characters in the Molly Ringwald classic Sixteen Candles.

46
By Eo (not verified)
July 23, 2010 2:06 PM

Sara no H and Elizabeth T.-- Ha, that is funny! You are both too kind and tactful to say so, but I AM hopelessly predictable and do resort to the same old "writer's tics" when scribbling away...

Miriam, Linnaeus and emilyrae-- Wonderful lists of magical names you came up with. I love Miriam's term "sorcerous"!

I realized later that I threw in some Biblical names in mine (Jerusha, Damaris, Mehitabel, etc) not just for their perfect sound but precisely because I have the typical Judeo-Christian uneasiness with the whole idea of witchcraft and the black arts, etc. "Sorcery" per se repels me, but the idea of good "magic", and names that could come out of old fairy tales wield a certain attraction...

The name "Jacquetta" jogged something in me-- I have always liked "Jacobina" and think it a fresh alternative to "Jacqueline"...

By the way, am belatedly discovering the Swedish thrillers by Steig Larrson. Am only on the first one, "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo", but it provides lots of great Swedish names to all you Scandaphile NE's.
I'd be curious to know how common "Stieg" is in Sweden-- hadn't encountered it before...

47
July 23, 2010 2:19 PM

TM,
add me to the list that doesn't find sadie dog-nameish. max, sam, lucy, sadie....these may all be popular pet names, but i don't think of them that way at all. i think they're all great people names though!

48
By Amy3
July 23, 2010 4:11 PM

I also don't think of Sadie as a "dog" name despite having had a cat 13+ years ago with the name. In the ensuing years I've met 3 young girls named Sadie. And didn't Adam Sandler use this for one of his girls?

49
July 23, 2010 4:38 PM

@Eo: I am also just discovering The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and others), and I totally agree--- The names are fantastic! I studied in Denmark for a while back in college, so the style feels familiar, but still new.

@Amy3: Adam Sandler has daughters Sadie and Sunny.

50
July 23, 2010 5:00 PM

Name of a new girl born yesterday: C0rab3lla Ad3laide.