Ben Zimmer of Language Log has a detailed discussion of the name of a newborn:

When Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes announced the birth of their daughter on Tuesday, celebrity-watchers were eager to find out what to call TomKat’s offspring (besides TomKitten, of course). The couple’s publicist revealed that the baby’s name is Suri, further explaining that the name means ‘princess’ in Hebrew and ‘red rose’ in Persian. Given the immense scrutiny the couple has gotten, it was no surprise that even this offhand comment stirred up some controversy…

I’ll let you read Ben’s analysis of the Hebrew-princess issue (to which I can only add that Suri looks to me like a dialect variant of the name Sarah, which I believe is Sore in standard Yiddish, rather than a product of Kabbalah); personally, I’m more interested in the (uncontroversial) Persian word سوری, short for گل سوری gol-e suri ‘red rose,’ where suri is an adjectival derivative of sur ‘red color.’ This is apparently a cousin of the normal Persian word for ‘red,’ sorkh, which is related to Avestan sukhra; if anybody knows the details of the phonological developments involved, I’d love to hear them. (Incidentally, Ben might want to fix his quote from the Encyclopedia Iranica, which—due presumably to his not having downloaded the necessary font—gives the word as “sorkò” rather than sorkh.)
Ben says “That hasn’t stopped journalists and bloggers from finding alternate meanings for the word in various languages: ‘pickpocket’ in Japanese (Times of London), ‘pointy nose’ in the southern Indian language of Todas (AP), an epithet for Lord Krishna (Gawker), a breed of alpaca (Tabloidbaby), and so on and so forth”; to add to the fun, I’ll contribute Hausa ‘anthill,’ Pushtu ‘large sack,’ and (more attractively) Hindi (from Sanskrit) ‘wise, learned.’ When she gets old enough, she can take her pick.


  1. Thanks for the tip about the Encyclopedia Iranica error, which I’ve fixed. What sort of font do you suppose I need to download so that the “-kh” displays properly?

  2. Go to the main page and click on the “first time users” link, where they have instructions on how to download their font. I haven’t done it myself because I use Firefox, which isn’t supported.

  3. Your analysis of the Hebrew is correct: it’s the pronunciation in some Yiddish dialects of standard Yiddish Sore “Sarah.” And Sarah is indeed the feminine of ?ar “some sort of ruler” (cf Akkadian šarru “king”), so name dictionaries will frequently claim that Sarah means “princess” or “queen.”
    As for the Persian, ?? is a reflex of the same Old Persian *varda that gives us Greek ????? and Hebrew ??? (not to mention Latin rosa > English “rose”)… but then you probably already knew that.

  4. Isn’t it also Arabic for ‘Syrian’? I’m just guessing here, but when I read of al Qaeda members whose noms de guerre end with (e.g.) al-Turki, al-Kurdi, and al-Suri, I tend to assume they translate as “the Turk”, “the Kurd”, and “the Syrian”.

  5. It might also be worth pointing out that suri means ‘died’ in Estonian. Looks like she’s going to grow up to be a goth.

  6. Dr. Weevil: Yes, that’s right, and I had planned to mention the Arabic meaning — it went right out of my head. Thanks for adding it here.
    Tanel: Heh.

  7. In the Peruvian Amazon suri is the name given to the larva of a palm weevil. They’re a very popular food – here is a picture. It’s still the top result for a google image search, although that will surely change.

  8. Cryptic Ned says

    “Suri” would be the transliteration of the French for “under rice”. Possibly a reference to another odd Scientologist childbirth custom?

  9. Among American ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Yiddish diminutive “-ele” (e.g. Moyshele, Ruvele, Avremele, Feygele) has nowadays in large measure been replaced by “-ie” (/i/, I guess, phonetically – e.g. Moyshie, Ruvie, Avrumie, Feygie). This grates on my ears, but once again no one asked me.
    Note further that Surele is quite a widespread dimiutive for Ashkenazic “Sure,” thus it’s really no surprise that Surele would be Americanized to “Surie,” or — wait for it — “Suri.” I don’t know any Suries, but there must be some besides the one Language Log mentions.
    That Israeli televsion commentators are ignorant of Ashkenazi onomastics is not particularly surprising. Most of them “would make motzi [the blessing for bread] over a radish,” as the Yiddish saying goes.

  10. Surely it’s from Suriname. 🙂

  11. Suri ’nuff?

  12. Dr Trouble says

    First, I had an Israeli neighbour whose nickname was Suri (or Souri, whichever spelling your prefer), and whose real name is Sara. She is originally from the Ashkenazi descent.
    Second, the Biblical Sara’s name was also Sarai (phonetically), which was probably “Americanized ” by some to Suri (to comply with American phonetics).
    Hence another twist to attract public attention and to maintain a tabloid presence and/or an excuse to $$ “claims” that some people profess.

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