I was watching a Scientific American Frontiers episode in which a scientist named Syndonia Bret-Harte was quoted, and I was struck by her name—not so much the last name, allusive though it is, as her given name, which a Google search showed to occur every once in a while (mostly in 19th-century names) but which I could not find in any reference works (dictionaries of names, Greek, Latin, &c). I won’t bore you with the details of how I tracked it down, but I eventually discovered that it’s a variant of Sidonia, whose most common English variant is Sidony. I’ve found two online explanations. The first is here:

Sidony: this name was formerly used by Roman Catholics for girls born about the date of the Feast of the Winding Sheet (i.e. of Christ), more formally alluded to as ‘the Sacred Sendon’. ‘Sendon’ or ‘Sindon’ (from Latin ‘sindon,’ Greek sindon ‘fine cloth, linen’) was used in Middle English for a fine cloth, especially one used as a shroud. The Sacred Sendon is supposed to be preserved at Turin. That ‘Sidony’ or ‘Sidonia’ =’Sindonia’ is shown by an example from Shropshire, 1793, ‘Sidonia or Sindonia Wilden.’ ‘Sidonie’ is not uncommon in France, and the Irish ‘Sidney’ is probably really ‘Sidony.’ No early example of the name has been found, but it seems likely that the surname ‘Siddons’ has this origin.

But the Dictionary of First Names has a more scholarly version:

From Latin Sid{o_}nia, feminine of Sid{o_}nius, in origin an ethnic name meaning ‘man from Sidon’ (the city in Phoenicia). This came to be associated with the Greek word sindon ‘winding sheet’. Two saints called Sidonius are venerated in the Catholic Church: Sidonius Apollinaris, a 4th-century bishop of Clermont, and a 7th-century Irish monk who was the first abbot of the monastery of Saint-Saëns (which is named with a much altered form of his name). Sidonius was not used as a given name in the later Middle Ages, but the feminine form was comparatively popular and has continued in occasional use ever since.

It was all worth it to discover the origin of the name of Saint-Saëns!

For a little added fun, the Czech equivalent (originally a diminutive) is Zdeněk (masc.)/Zdeňka (fem.).


  1. Thanks for posting this. I saw the same program and the same scientist and was wondering where the name originated. Thanks for sharing your research!

  2. My pleasure!

  3. Very Interesting! My daughters middle name is Sidonie, I just fell in love with the name(and she has French ancestry on her Dads side so it fits).

  4. sidonia mary says

    i was named sidonia after grand mother’ s sister they were born in ireland 1830’s i was born 1937
    of irish parentage i would like contact with others with name of sidonia.very pleased to find info on origin of name thank you

  5. I was named for my Aunt (my mother’s sister). The story I heard as a child was that there were people named Syndonia in my family back in the 1600s and 1700s, but not for a long time after that. My grandmother thought that the name was pretty, and wanted to use it again, so gave it to my Aunt as a middle name. My ancestors on my grandmother’s side were from the UK and Ireland, so this fits with what you have discovered. I am interested to see what you have found, as my family doesn’t have any information on the origin of the name. Thanks for doing this research.

    By the way, on my other side, my great-great-grandfather was the American author Bret Harte (his pen name; his given name was Francis Harte). He asked his children to take his pen name as their last name, so after several generations, I inherited the name from my Dad. I put the hyphen in to make less confusion when paperwork needs to get filed.

  6. Wow, it’s great to hear from you a decade after I posted this! Thanks for the family lore, and I’m glad I was able to help with the etymology.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Sidonius Apollinaris is known in French as “Sidoine Apollinaire” (with Sidonius > Sidoine as with Antonius > Antoine). I never thought of associating the first name with “Sidonie”, let alone Saint-Saëns.

    The female name seems to have been relatively popular in the 19th C. It was one of the given names (and the usual one) of the mother of the writer Colette, who referred to her as “Sido” (probably the diminutive her husband used) in her autobiographical works. “Colette” herself was officially Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Colette being her father’s last name). I am sure I have heard of other Sidonies among more ordinary women. No other Sidoines among men though.

  8. David Marjanović says

    I am sure I have heard of other Sidonies among more ordinary women.

    I know one; her nickname, of course, is Sido.

  9. marie-lucie says

    David, what is her approximate age? When I was young, Sidonie would have been hopelessly old-fashioned, but in recent years many old names have been revived. So I would expect a Sidonie to be either very old or very young, but not in between.

  10. David Marjanović says

    either very old or very young

    Yep, she’s a few years younger than me. Other names found in that age group are Aurore and Ludivine – the latter of which I found so difficult to even imagine that I asked how it’s spelled, convinced I must have had misheard 2 or 3 times in a row.

  11. Brian Woodward says

    I have 22 Sindonia/Syndonias in my family tree. The first Sindonia Stanton b30 April 1755 and baptised 20th May Presteigne Wales. Only 3 born in England after 1916.

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