Who is Sylvia?

Since we named our daughter Sylvia lots of people like to impress us with their knowledge of the use of the name “Sylvia” in popular culture so we thought it would be interesting to document all cultural references and famous people called Sylvia in the blog. There seem to be three major references … the song “Sylvia’s Mother” by Dr Hook, the verse from Two Gentlemen of Verona “Who is Silvia” and Schuberts “An Sylvia”.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

Not regarded as his best work, the play written in the late 16th century is about two gentlemen Proteus and Valentine who both fall for the Duke’s daughter Silvia. A typically Shakespearean plot unfolds with women posing as men and the tale ends with a rather sordid and unpleasant confrontation in the forest where all ends happily.

The verse below is sung in Act 4, Scene 2:

Who is Silvia? what is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair, and wise is she;
The heaven such grace did lend her,
That she might admir’d be.

Is she kind as she is fair?
For beauty lives with kindness.
Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness,
And, being helped, inhabits there.

Then to Silvia let us sing,
That Silvia is excelling;
She excels each mortal thing
Upon the dull earth dwelling:
To her let us garlands bring.

Schubert’s D. 891 (Op. 106, No. 4) from 1826 is one of the greatest song settings of Shakespeare’s verse (see above).

Sylvia’s Mother by Dr Hook

Dr Hook were a country/rock band. Their song “Sylvia’s Mother” was a hit from their first album in the summer of 1972 – kept only from the UK No. 1 spot by Donny Osmond’s “Puppy Love”.

Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s busy, too busy to come to the phone
Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s trying, to start a new life of her own
Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s happy, so why don’t you leave her alone
And the operator says Forty cents more, for the next three minutes

Please Mrs. Avery I just got to talk to her
I’ll only keep her a while
Please Mrs. Avery I just want to tell her

Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s packing, she’s going be leaving today
Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s marrying, a fellow down Galveston-Way
Sylvia’s mother says Please don’t say nothing, to make her start crying and stay
And the operator says Forty cents more, for the next three minutes


Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s hurrying, she’s catching the nine o’clock train
Sylvia’s mother says Take your umbrella, cause Sylvia it’s starting to rain
And Sylvia’s mother says Thank you for calling and sir won’t you come back again
And the operator says Forty cents more, for the next three minutes


Other Cultural References

Other recent cultural references include the 2003 film “Sylvia” starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath, wife of poet Ted Hughes. There are several other films with “Sylvia” in the title too.

My ‘older’ friends have drawn my attention to “Sylvia” which was a hit in the 70’s for Dutch band Focus. I listened to this on iTunes the other and it’s actually rather good!

Rhea Silvia was, according to mythological tradition, the mother of the twins Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome.

There was also a 6th century Saint called Sylvia, mother of Pope Saint Gregory the Great. Not to be confused with Silvia Saint of course who is a 20th century Czech porn actress!

See also: Queen Silvia of Sweden, Sylvie Guillem french ballet dancer, Silvia Gašparovi?ová first lady of Slovakia, Silvía Night a satirical Icelandic comic character, erotic author Sylvia Day and the Nissan Silvia a car sold in Japan (see http://www.nissan.co.jp/MUSEUM/SILVIA/ for much more!).

Meaning and Origin of “Sylvia”

The origin of the name Sylvia is the Latin silva and it means ‘woods’ or ‘forest’.

The more common variant of the name was Silvia until quite recently. The Victorians thought Silvia was more elegant written as Sylvia and so it has taken over in popularity.

Silvia is still a common first name in Italy. In France it is more commonly spelled Sylvie. The French boys names Sylvain and Sauvage are both derived from Latin silva (forest). Sylvain comes from Silvanus, a Roman deity presiding over woods. Other variants include Silvio (male version) and Silvius.

Sylvia in Chinese characters is shown below:

Silva is the most common surname in Portugal and Brazil and people who came from forested areas often took this surname.

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