Dennis is one part mild-mannered accountant, one part god of wine and revelry.
Denise shares his dual nature. Thanks to Shan for suggesting a family middle name as our Baby Name of the Day.
If you know a Denise, chances are she’s your aunt, or maybe even your mom. I know a 30-something Denise, but none much younger. The name’s heyday was the 1950s, and she lingered in the US Top 100 through the 1980s.
Like the saintly Dennis, she’s been worn by third and fifth century martyrs, but the women likely answered to something closer to Dionysia, a version of the name that reveals her pagan roots. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, and all the merriment that accompanied the drink. Over the years, he was condensed into the French Denis. Denise is the French feminine form. We borrowed her in the 1940s, though she wasn’t completely unknown before that time.
The name remained was in use in Medieval England, though variant versions abounded. Masculine nickname Tenny became the source of surname Tennyson. I’m quite fond of Diot, a feminine form based on Dionisia.
Denise peaked in the 1920s in France, long before we’d embraced her in English. I expected to find a French import – an actress or literary character – to explain her adoption. But it appears that we’d simply embraced Dennis for boys, and were casting about for the appropriate feminine form.
Dena could have worked, but Denise was the obvious choice. Alternate spelling Denice emerged, too, likely influenced by Patrice and Bernice.
The elaborate Deniece has never cracked the US Top 1000, but she has some currency thanks to her catchy #1 single from the original Footloose soundtrack, “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.”
While we’re visiting the 1980s, there’s also Denise Huxtable, second-oldest daughter on The Cosby Show, known for her trend-setting style. Actress Lisa Bonet rocketed to stardom on the sitcom and its spin-off, A Different World.
Other notable Denises include:
- Niecy Nash – born Carol Denise – the comedienne and television personality best known for hosting Clean House;
- Denise Richards’ acting career ignited in the 1990s, including a turn as Bond girl and nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones in 1999’s The World is not Enough;
- Physical fitness guru Denise Austin.
There was also a 1963 Randy & the Rainbows hit, complete with shooby-doos. Blondie covered the single a few years later. Debbie Harry throws in French lyrics, and also changes the title to the masculine Denis.
These days, Denise is falling fast, and parents might be more likely to consider throwback forms like Dionisia. And yet, just like her brother Dennis, she keeps chugging along, not fashionable, but not fleeting, either.