You are unlikely to meet many an Aphra these days.
Not only has it never reached the American top thousand, it has never managed to accrue five or more bearers in any year since records began.
Indeed, it is one of those historic curios which might have long ago slipped into quiet obscurity were it not for one notable bearer.
The poet, playwright and spy Aphra Behn.
Aphra was born in 1640 and died at the age of forty-eight in 1689.
Her early years are somewhat shrouded in mystery, and there is many a question mark which hovers over her life and adventures.
The biggest is over the trip she is supposed to have taken to Surinam in the early sixteen-sixties, the inspiration, it is said, for her Oroonoko, a work which is viewed by many as containing an early condemnation of slavery and the slave-trade.
In the mid 1660s, during the second Anglo-Dutch War, she spied for King Charles II in Antwerp. Charles wasn’t very good at paying her though, and by the end of the decade she was in a debtor’s prison in London.
Someone, however — someone unidentified — paid for her release, after which she turned to writing, becoming one of England’s first professional female writers.
She wrote plays, poetry and verse, often publishing under the name Astraea — said to have been her code name when spying in the Netherlands.
On her death, she was buried in Westminster Abbey — though not in Poets’ Corner.
But what of her name?
Many regard it as almost as mysterious as her life.
The first theory is that it is taken from the phrase “in the house of Aphrah, roll thyself in the dust,” which occurs in the biblical Book of Micah.
Certainly, it is probable that this is behind some examples of Aphra and Aphrah in the period, even though it arose as a mistake; it is aphrah itself which means “dust” in Hebrew, and it wasn’t actually a genuine given-name at all.
Another theory is that it is a variant of Afra, the feminine form of the Latin adjective afer meaning “black.” It occurs as a name in Roman times, and is borne by a minor saint.
However, she was not venerated in Britain in the medieval and early modern period, making it fairly unlikely that this was the source of Aphra Behn’s name, even though she may have been a Catholic.
Perhaps the biggest clue to the real origin of Aphra lies in the fact that her name was recorded in the parish register at her baptism as Eaffry.
This and other variants, such as Effrye, Effery, Efferay, Effray, Affray, and Affery are all found in the medieval period, suggesting that they actually represent a survival of an Old English name.
Likely contenders are Elfreda (ælf “elf ” + þrӯð “strength”), Etheldred (æðel “noble” + þrӯð “strength”), Ælthryth (æl “all” + þrȳð “strength”), or Æðelfrið (æðel “noble” + friþ “peace”).
Even Alfred might lie behind it, as it was also used as a girl’s name in the early medieval period, when it was often Latinized as Albreda. Some of its medieval forms, such as Avery, really aren’t a million miles away from Aphra.
Affery was still to be found in the nineteenth century; it was one of the unusual names collected by Charles Dickens. He obviously took rather a shine to it, as he went on to use it for a character in Little Dorrit.
So, if you fancy an unusual girl’s name with heritage, you could do a lot worse than the intriguing and beguiling Aphra.
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