Name Interview: Iona

Iona is one of the Inner Hebrides islands in Scotland, known for having a very old abbey that was important in early Christianity. There is some disagreement about whether the island’s name originally came from Old Norse/Gaelic words for “yew” or for “island”, but most sources seem to agree that the N found its way into the word through a transcription error in the late 1200s. Iona has been used as a given name since the mid-1800s. (1, 2). It’s pretty uncommon in the US today, so I interviewed the parents of a little Iona to find out how they chose it for their daughter.

Quick facts

Name: Iona

Name pronunciation: eye-OH-na

Birth year range: 2019-2024

Location: United States

Name popularity: Although it’s fairly common in the UK (it was the #66 girls’ name in Scotland in 2021), Iona is rare in the US. Its usage in the US peaked in 1918, with 404 births, putting at rank #318 (1, 2). It has been out of the top 1000 names since 1946, although recently it has been trending upwards. From 2019 to 2022, it was used for between 52 and 74 American girls per year. 

Full name: Iona’s family name is a 3 syllable Indian name starting with K.


Who named this child? What was your process like?

K: My husband and I named her together. We tend to have different decision-making strategies, so when we’re making big decisions together, the process that works best for us is for me to do a ton of researching and comparing on my own, then once I reach a point of indecision, I give him a shortlist of options I would be happy with and he picks one. Otherwise we’re each trying to go at different speeds and annoying each other.

I read through every name on Nameberry and Behind the Name, with an eye out for names from languages/countries/cultures I have at least a bit of a family connection to, and then made a big spreadsheet with names, pronunciations, origins, meanings, and popularity data. Then I slowly narrowed it down based on those criteria plus how it sounded with the family name, how it sounded with our older kid’s name, and just how much I liked it. I think in the end my husband picked from a shortlist of about 8 names.

Where did you first hear this name?

K: I’m honestly not sure where I first heard of either the island or the name.

How did you end up considering this name for your child?

K: Iona kept showing up on lists of Scottish names, and every time I heard it, I liked it more.

Did you like the name right away? Were there any hesitations or downsides?

K: Yes, I found it pretty immediately appealing. I think the only downside is that it does sound like “I own a…” but I guess I just didn’t think that was a big deal.

What other names did you consider?

K: Because we had chosen quite an uncommon name for our son, there were actually a lot of names I really love that I eliminated early on because I worried they were too popular and would make for an uneven pairing. I was probably more focused on the numbers of this than I needed to be, but I just really didn’t want a situation where one kid was like, “Why did you give me the weird name, I wish I had a normal name like my sibling,” or, conversely, “Why did you give me such a common name, I wish I had a unique name like my sibling.” I really wanted them both to have a similar experience. One name I eliminated for popularity was Laura – I’ve always loved it, but it was about 30 times as common as our son’s name, and had a much more recent peak, which seemed like a big difference to me.

Describe what you like about the name. Are there other names that share the same traits? Do you think your partner liked the name for the same reasons?

K: I like that it’s beautiful, but it also feels spare and straightforward. There’s something about the efficiency of getting three syllables out of only four letters that makes me think an Iona should be honest and direct. I imagine sort of an independent Victorian librarian, or perhaps a Miss Marple type character. I also liked that even though it didn’t really take off as a given name until the 1800s, it does still have a bit of a medieval feel from the association with the island and the Abbey.

How do you and your partner feel about your own names? Did this affect what you were looking for in a baby name?

K: I don’t have a lot of opinions about my name. It’s a good name, but it’s also very common.

When did you announce the name? What was the initial response from family and friends?

K: I told some people beforehand, everyone else with the birth announcement. Everybody said nice things about the name.

Now that your child is older, what reactions does the name get from strangers?

K: I occasionally get people who think I said Fiona or who misread the capital I as a lowercase L, but the most common reaction is definitely that people haven’t heard it before but like it right away. One librarian said, “Oh, like the island! A beautiful name with ancient roots,” and I was like, “Yes, exactly! Thank you for understanding exactly what I was going for!”

Did you have any moments of regret or doubt after giving your child the name?

K: Not after she was born. In between choosing the name and her birth, I did second-guess it a little, mostly because there were so many other names I loved and I wished I had dragged out the decision process a little longer. But once she was born, it felt like her name right away.

Overall, how do you feel about the name now?

K: I’m really happy with it. I think it suits her, and it meets all the criteria I had, and I just really like it.

What are a couple names you recently heard in the wild?

K: We recently encountered an Otto, which I was absolutely delighted by! I have also heard Aria, Dylan, and Torsten recently.

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