Choosing a name

April 23, 2009

A number of people have written to inquire about the names we have given to our daughter: Iona Maria Scholastica Barthos Burrell.  Where do they come from?  How are they pronounced?  What in tarnation?!  Since I don’t have time to respond to everyone, this post briefly addresses these and related questions.

Iona: Iona (pronounced “eye-OH-nah”) turns out to have a fairly rich set of associations.  It is, among other things, the name of a resort island in Greece, the name of a village on Cape Breton Island, and Iona Nigrovittata is the name of a species of spider from Tonga.  (Thank goodness we did not choose “Nigrovittata” as her middle name.)  In Hebrew the feminine noun HNWY, transliterated yownah, means “dove”, which is surely a happy connection.

More to the point, Iona is a feminine name of Scottish provenance.  Its popularity tanked on these shores in the 1930s, but it has remained popular in the land of kilt and haggis.   We have some Scottish heritage in our backgrounds.  It is an old name, ultimately derived from the Isle of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides, site of the famous Iona Abbey and an important pilgrimage destination for many generations of medieval Europeans.

Several years ago my wife and I spent a few days on Iona.  Afterwards I wrote a rather melancholy reflection on that experience, more or less in sadness for the passing of the long Catholic tradition of prayer and devotion centered there.  Naming our daughter after the island is, in part, our way of marking our love for old Iona and its place in our history.  We hope that our daughter will one day have the opportunity to visit the island herself.

Maria: Maria is a variation on “Mary”, the name of the mother of Jesus. You may have heard of her.  She is also known by various honorific titles, such as Seat of Wisdom, Gate of Heaven, Tower of Ivory, Ark of the Covenant, Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, Mirror of Justice, Vessel of Honour, Tower of David, Mystical Rose, Morning Star, Queen of Angels, House of Gold, and many others.  We thought a simple “Maria” was sufficient.

Scholastica: Not, as some have supposed, a way of burdening our daughter with expectations of scholarly brilliance, this name refers to St. Scholastica, the sixth-century Italian (or, if you prefer, Roman) saint, foundress of a contemplative community, and sister of St. Benedict. Her feast day is February 10. Much of what we know of her is derived from legends, but they are good and memorable legends (found, for instance, in The Golden Legend).  This name was originally my idea, and is my way of acknowledging my debt of gratitude to the Benedictines.  It is a good, solid, Catholic name, and I hope that it will give Iona a special connection to this strand of our spiritual tradition.

Barthos: Her mother’s maiden name, ultimately of Hungarian origin.  It is a variation on “Bartok”, but I don’t believe there is any family relation to the composer.

Burrell: Our family name.  It is apparently of Old French origin, borne by craftsmen working with wool (“bovre”). The oldest occurance of the name that I have discovered is from the year 1194, in Wiltshire, where it was borne by a certain Roger Burel.  It has a relatively short history in our family, having been adopted by my great-grandparents when they emigrated to Canada from Sweden (where their name had been Johnson).  The reasons for this abrupt change in surname are not known to me, but I can imagine some colourful possibilities.

So there you have it: Iona Maria Scholastica Barthos Burrell.  It has a nice ring to it.

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7 Responses to “Choosing a name”

  1. bethsciallo Says:

    I had to visit because 1) love babies 2) live in Scotland and 3)all five kids have names that people ask about
    Iona is beautiful – congradulations and blessings to you both. Our youngest daughter (Arwen Rebecca Sciallo) just turned five April 8th. It goes so fast – enjoy every snuggle.

  2. Mike Says:

    Craig, I’m sorry I didn’t send you my congratulations sooner. I’ve been eating up everything you’ve posted about her. I’ve been having a lot of discussions with friends about the names too, so thanks for the explanations. I like them! The running joke is she’d have to be careful about introducing herself if she ever marries a man with a noun for a last name ;)

    One minor clarification: I think our old family name was Jonsson, not Johnson.

  3. Pentimento Says:

    A Russian Orthodox priest (an Irish convert from Anglicanism) told me that St. Columba exiled himself to Iona in self-imposed penance for his murder of a brother monk over an illuminated psalter. He got into a boat, it seems, and let the boat carry him and a few of his brothers to where he would never see the sores of his beloved Ireland again. Not sure if this is true. It’s a wonderful name! God bless you all.

  4. Pentimento Says:

    I meant the shores, not the sores, of his beloved Ireland! :)

  5. cburrell Says:

    I am reading a medieval life of St.Columba right now, and the translator says that the story of Columba-the-murderer is one of many in circulation, but that nobody really knows whether it is true.

    Mike, when we decided on “Iona” as a first name, we quickly decided that “Mercedes” was ruled out as a middle name.

  6. AuntieD Says:

    My dear mother’s name was Ione. Such a lovely name and so rarely given.

  7. cburrell Says:

    Ione is a form that I have not seen before. I agree that it — along with its close variants — is lovely.


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