Name of the Day: Jarvis

by appellationmountain on January 13, 2009

He’s a medieval curiosity with a surprising nature tie – and he’s more popular than you might imagine.

Thanks to JNE for suggesting our Name of the Day: Jarvis.

Yet again, we have the Normans to thank for this name. Legend has it that Saint Gervasius was martyred in Milan around the year 165. The very real Saint Ambrose discovered his remains in the 300s, and the name was bestowed – usually as Gervais or Gervase – for the next several centuries.

You may recognize the ger element – it’s that popular Germanic bit meaning spear. The second half is open to debate. What we know for certain is that the Normans imported him to England, and over time he became Jervis and Jarvis. He also became far more popular as a last name than a first.

Like many a medieval moniker and plenty of surnames, Jarvis was sometimes bestowed in the nineteenth century – possibly to honor a family member or perhaps because of romantic associations with times gone by. In the US, we find Jarvis charting in the US Top 1000 a few times between 1880 and 1949.

But then the unexpected happened – Jarvis caught on! Starting in 1950, he moved steadily up the US rankings, reaching #347 in 1988. He’s falling now, and came in at #901 in 2007.

Laura Wattenberg has talked about the fact that it doesn’t take a major celebrity to launch a baby name; this may be one of those cases. Here are my three candidates for ramping up Jarvis’ profile:

  • James C. Jarvis was a thirteen year old midshipman in the US Navy decorated for extraordinary bravery in battle. (He lost his life to save his ship.) The USS Jarvis brought soldiers in the Pacific home from World War II;
  • In the 1930s, disc jockey Al Jarvis hosted “The Make Believe Ballroom” on KFWB in Los Angeles. He played himself in a light-hearted 1949 movie.
  • That same year, a thriller called Strange Bargain featured a character named Malcolm Jarvis.

It also happens that Jarvis fit reasonably well with boys’ names in use at the time. James held the #1 spot; Jerry was in the Top 25; and Louis, Curtis and Francis were all popular.

Today, Jarvis sounds vaguely English, probably because of Jarvis Cocker. Former frontman for the Britpop band Pulp in the 1990s, he released a solo album – titled simply Jarvis – in 2006.

But perhaps Jarvis’ most appealing quality is his tie to a South Pacific Island. Since 1974, it has been maintained as Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge. While it is closed to most visitors, it has an interesting history and was briefly colonized under FDR’s administration in the 1930s. Apparently the owners of the ship that discovered the island in 1821 were Edward, Thomas and William Jarvis. The name stuck.

If you fear Jasper is about to become the next big thing, Jarvis is one that will probably suit your appetite for the seldom heard. With his medieval origins, heroic backstory and ties to a shorebird sanctuary, Jarvis is a surprisingly versatile pick for a daring parent.

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