Names of the Week: Basil and Sybil

Sybil and Basil Fawlty, from

Last week we mentioned Father Ted, and this week we’re talking about another one of my favourite sitcoms: Fawlty Towers. Headed by John Cleese, and co-written by his then-wife Connie Booth, it got away with comedy scenes that could never be broadcast nowadays. Those familiar with the series will likely realise I’m talking about the episode entitled The Germans which in 1997 was ranked #12 on TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.

In terms of the program itself, in a list of the British Film Institutes TV 100 drawn up by the BFI in 2000, and voted for by industry professionals, Fawlty Towers was placed first. It was also voted fifth in the BBC’s “Britain’s Best Sitcom” poll in 2004 – not bad going for something that first aired way back in 1975 and only lasted two series.

The name of the incompetent hotelier and main character was Basil Fawlty, with his wife named Sybil (played by Priscilla Scales) – who frequently shrieked his name at the top of his voice.

In terms of the herb, Basil (although sometimes referred to as Sweet Basil) is commonly used in cooking. Well, I know I use it frequently. It has origins in India, and thus prominently feature in Indian cuisine – but it not limited simply to it. I have a few other Asian friends from all over Asia who assure me that they too use basil in their home cuisine on a frequent enough basis.

As for where the word basil comes from, it’s likely to be from the Greek word basileus, which means king. It seems apt then that there are plenty of chefs who have referred to basil as the king of herbs. There is also the tale that basil was believed to have grown above the spot where St.Constantine and his mother St. Helen discovered the Holy Cross.

As for how you say Basil, you may think it’s obvious, but I remember watching a show once of American origin where they pronounced Basil as BAY-zil, not the BAH-zil pronunciation I use which is something to certainly be aware of. Something else you may like to be aware of is that only 19 boys were named Basil in England&Wales in 2010.

Whilst one could claim Basil isn’t particularly considered a name of the elder generation – Sybil has been consistently named as a name one could only ever imagine on dear ol’ Great Auntie Sybil. You needn’t spell the name as Sybil, there are plenty of variations out there which indicate that this name could have what it takes to win over the mother of today:

  • Cybill
  • Sibyl
  • Sybille

They all go back to the Ancient Greek name Sibylla, meaning prophetess. There was once a word sibyl, a given title to usually female prophets. According to later Christian theology, the sibyls were thought to possess divine knowledge and hence were revered in pretty much the same fashion as Old Testament prophets.

It’s believed that because of this, Sibyl came into usage as a name amongst Christians during the Middle Ages. It because relatively rare after the Protestant Reformation, but received a lifeline from Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil which was published in 1845.

Of course, nowadays more and more people (especially children) will firs think of Professor Sybil Trewlaney when they hear the name Sybil – who is the slightly batty professor of divination at Hogwarts, first appearing in the third book: Prisoner of Azkaban. She end up playing a key role in the series after predicting Harry’s destiny of defeating the Dark Lord.

You may also be thinking about the name Cybele at this post, which is the name of the Phyrian goddess of fertility and nature. She was also later worshipped by both the Greeks and Romans. Generally speaking though, she’s pronounced with three-syllables: SIB-a-lee.

I could see Cybele appealing to today’s parents more, what with her very on-trend ending of -bel, but could see this particular name pronounced them same as one would say Sybil, which then may in turn lead to a pick up in usage for the name. Although that said, whilst only 4 girls were given the name Sybil in 2010, neither Sibyl nor Cybele ranked.

Categories: Names of the Week | Tags: , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Names of the Week: Basil and Sybil

  1. aww, Fawlty Towers. I love Basil and Sibyl (this spelling).


  2. I think Sibyl/Sybil needs a bit more time before her comeback, but both Sibylla and Cybele (pronounced correctly!) have contemporary rings. I love them both.


  3. Sybella and its many variants was very trendy here a few years ago, and it’s still going on.

    Cybele is a wonderful strong choice.

    The very long-term popularity of this show probably hasn’t helped the names Basil and Sybil – as soon as I hear either one, I think of “BASIL! Basil, what ARE you doing?” and “Yes, coming Sybil dear … ugly old witch, mutter mutter” in their very distinctive catchphrases.


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