It’s an ancient Roman name, reasonably popular around the turn of the last century, that seems poised for another revival.
Leta (pronounced LEE-tuh) comes from the Latin word laetus, meaning “happy, glad, joyful.” Laetus was used as a Roman boys’ name, at least up until the 15th century. The girls’ equivalent that you’re probably more familiar with is Letitia (also spelled Laetitia or Leticia). Lettice was a variant used in medieval England.
A fifth-century tomb inscription in Italy mentions Leta Presbitera, or “Leta the Presbyter.” Some Catholics have used this inscription to argue that women were priests in the early Church, though others contend that Presbitera should be translated “presbyter’s wife.” The name fell out of use with the fall of the Roman Empire. It was revived around 1860 and remained in the U.S. top 500 until 1923.
I discovered several months ago that I have a Leta in my family tree. She was my great-grandmother, whom I never met, the mother of my paternal grandfather. Her full name was Leta Alice Fulps; she was born in Mulberry, Kansas, in 1896. Back then, the name Leta didn’t appeal to only to edgy baby-namers; Leta’s brothers were the traditional Ben, John, and Clarence, and her sister was homely Beulah.
The best-known historical Leta is probably Leta Stetter Hollingworth. Born in 1886 and educated at the University of Nebraska, she went on to become a pioneer in the field of women’s psychology. She is well-known for her work with gifted children and children with learning disabilities. As further evidence that her name was seen as a rather conventional choice, her younger sisters were called Ruth and Margaret.
Though Leta left the top 1000 in 1961, it still sees occasional use. A quick Google search of the name turns up a present-day UC Santa Cruz music professor, a graphic design student in New York, an interior decorator in Florida, a Chicago photographer, a Swiss painter, a chiropractor in Washington DC, a professional golfer, and the owner of a Pittsburgh yoga school.
Some websites erroneously list Leda as a related form. Leda (pronounced either LEE-duh or LAY-duh), in fact, is a character in Greek mythology: a mortal woman who was raped by Zeus when he came upon her in the form of a swan. Their union produced the beautiful Helen of Troy. Though her story is rather violent, the literal meaning of her name is feminine and simple. Scholars trace the name back to the extinct Lycian language and speculate that it may have meant “woman.” Latin, Greek, and Lycian all come from distinct branches of the Indo-European language family — thus Leta and Leda, while very close in sound, are completely unrelated in meaning and derivation. Those who eschew god and goddess names as too “hipster” (yes, Nameberry, I’m looking at you) might do well to leave Leta on the usable names list.
Leta might appeal to someone:
- who wants an innovative way to honor a relative named Joy, Joyce, or Gay (as the names are connected in meaning)
- who loves the old-fashioned simplicity of Emma, Hannah, and Leah, but wants something significantly less common
Leda might appeal to parents:
- looking for an unusual way to honor a relative named Helen
- seeking a sibling for Chloe or Daphne (or, hey… Anne Heche’s Homer and Atlas)
- wanting a subtle themed name to pair with twin brother Charles or Andreas (as they mean “man” and Leda means “woman”)
I wouldn’t expect Leta and Leda to remain off the charts for long. With god and goddess names “in” among celebrities, the mortal Leda seems wearable for the babies of non-celebrity parents. And Leta gained notice among members of the blogging community after Heather Armstrong (a.k.a. Dooce) used it for her daughter born in 2004. (Little Leta Elise Armstrong was named in honor of a great-aunt who died in infancy.)
Altogether, I don’t find Leta to be “hipster” or pretentious. It strikes me as a sweetly old-fashioned choice, along the lines of Cora, Mary, or Alice. And with Lily, Lola, Leah, Lana, and Leila all on the rise, Leta seems like the next logical step.