Happy birthday to the Queen of the Court!
Tennis great Serena Williams, who has twice won all four Grand Slam tournaments in a row, turns 36 today.
Serena is the feminine form of Latin Serenus, meaning “clear” or “serene.”
The first famous Serena was a niece of Theodosius, last emperor to rule both the western and eastern halves of the Roman Empire. In 384 Theodosius married her off to his general Stilicho to ensure his loyalty.
When Theodosius died in 395, he divided the empire between his sons Arcadius and Honorius. As Honorius was only 11, Stilicho became the power behind his throne. Serena shared his power — and his downfall.
In 408 Stilicho’s failure to stop Germanic tribes from invading Gaul and his plot to make his son Arcadius’s heir led to his execution. Serena was killed the next year on orders of Galla Placidia, Honorius’s sister.
Around the time the real Serena lived, the “Acts of St. Cyriacus” appeared. Cyriacus was martyred under Emperor Diocletian in 303. The “Acts” claim he converted Diocletian’s wife Serena to Christianity.
The tale is pious fiction — Diocletian’s wife was named Prisca; Cyriacus never met her. Nevertheless, the legendary empress was soon venerated as St. Serena.
Though used in Italy and Spain, Serena was rare in England until authors used it. In poet Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” (1596), Serena is knight Calepine’s beautiful lady. Bitten by the Blatant Beast, Serena is saved by the Savage Man’s healing herbs.
In 1704 freethinking philosopher John Toland published “Letters to Serena.” “Serena” was Queen Sophia Charlotte of Prussia (1668-1705), sister of Elector George of Hanover (later King George I of Great Britain). In his preface, Toland argues that women are just as intelligent as men, and states Serena is not imaginary, though he’s given her a “romantic name.”
The 1850 U.S. census found 2,051 Serenas. The 1851 census of Great Britain had only 172. Perhaps Americans saw Serena, with its Latin origin, as part of the “Classical Revival” where towns were named Rome and Athens and babies Horace and Minerva.
In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby names lists begin, Serena ranked 489th. By then it had an elderly image. That was reinforced by Blanche Willis Howard’s popular 1881 novel “Aunt Serena,” where kindly, wise, gray-haired Aunt Serena guides niece Rose to a successful love match.
Serena fell out of the top thousand in 1915. A few avant-garde parents rediscovered it in the 1950s.
In January 1966 Serena got a boost from “Bewitched.” Serena was Samantha’s cousin, a raven-haired, mischievous, sexy counterpart to sensible blonde Samantha. Both were played by Elizabeth Montgomery. Though Serena appeared irregularly, her name jumped from 694th in 1966 to 346th in 1969.
Serena dropped back to 530th in 1988. It then rose as an alternative for Sarah and Samantha, both top 10 names throughout the 1990s.
Serena’s rise was boosted in 1993 when English actress Serena Scott Thomas starred in the miniseries “Diana: Her True Story.” In 1997, teen character Serena Baldwin (Carly Schroeder) began appearing on the soap “General Hospital.” Serena peaked again at 209th in 2000.
2000 was just after Williams began her tennis career. Her first “Serena Slam” — winning the Australian, French and U.S. Opens along with Wimbledon — came in 2002 and 2003.
Though Williams may be the most famous Serena, others are well-known.
Television journalist Serena Altschul (born 1970) has been featured both on MTV News and CBS’s “Sunday Morning.” Canadian singer Serena Ryder (1982) saw her single “Stompa” go platinum in 2013 after it was featured on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Long-distance runner Burla (1982) and professional wrestler Deeb (1986) join Williams as successful athletes. Anthropologist Serena Nanda (1938) is an expert on gender diversity.
Other famous Serenas are fictional. Blake Lively played wealthy, charismatic Serena van der Woodsen on “Gossip Girl” from 2008 to 2012. Her character, a favorite of teenage girls, may explain Serena’s small uptick in use in 2008 and 2009.
Jennifer Lawrence played the jealous femme fatale title character in 2014’s “Serena,” based on Ron Rash’s 2008 novel.
Serena also is a main player character in popular role-playing video game “Pokémon X and Y.”
Serena ranked 448th in 2016. It probably won’t win any baby name Grand Slams, but with its transparent positive meaning, it should stay in regular use for quite a while.
Cleveland Evans is a Bellevue University psychology professor and author of “The Great Big Book of Baby Names.”