She’s a literary sensation invented by a creative papa.
Thanks to Tracy for suggesting Djuna as our Baby Name of the Day.
I had always assumed that Djuna had some history, some convoluted connection to a classic name, like Tiago comes from Saint Iago, ultimately James. But it isn’t so.
Djuna Barnes was almost certainly the first Djuna ever when she was born in 1892. June wasn’t especially popular for girls that year; neither were Una and Luna, though all three were in use.
Barnes had quite the backstory. Born to a starving artist father, the granddaughter of a once-prominent suffragist, she overcame poverty, limited formal education, and an arranged marriage to a man twice her age, to become a prominent writer in the 1920s and 30s. She made her mark in Greenwich Village and Paris, and is best known for her novel Nightwood.
Barnes explained that her name came from her father’s combination of nuna – her older brother’s babytalk word for the moon – and a character in a novel – Djalma. Djalma + nuna = Djuna. She once said “If the name means anything, it means ‘the light of the moon.'” I think that’s a poetic stretch, but she’s really the only one who can say.
The original Djuna had a niece named in her honor. But then Djuna debuted in the US Top 1000 at the relatively high spot of #738. That’s nearly 200 baby girls named Djuna. It was her only year in the Top 1000 – she’d drop off the list in 1965, and quickly returned to obscurity. What inspired all of those parents in 1964?
Nancy points out that it wasn’t just Djuna on the rise. Olympic legend Wilma Rudolph had a daughter named Djuanna in 1964, and Djuana rose that same year, too. But there’s no really good reason for any of the names to catch on, suddenly, in the 1960s.
Or is there? Djuna Barnes made her home in New York in Greenwich Village, in a little clutch of brick row houses known as Patchin Place. She wasn’t the most famous resident – E.E. Cummings was her neighbor. In 1963, Patchin Place was slated for demolition to make way for high rises. Barnes spoke out against the plans, and it put her back in the spotlight. The Patchin Place crusade was successful, and the Greenwich Village Historic District was established just a few years later.
Is it enough to add up to 198 parents settling on the name? Maybe. It also appears that Nightwood was re-issued in 1963, and a flurry of interviews or published letters seem to date to the same era. The most frequently quoted letter by Barnes explaining her name doesn’t surface until 1967. Could there have been an earlier comment, now lost, that inspired parents?
Other famous Djunas include:
- Fictional detective Ellery Queen had a houseboy called Djuna, supposedly of Romani descent. Perhaps inspiration came from jazz great Django Reinhardt, who was active in the same era the stories were written.
- Anaïs Nin named a character Djuna in her 1950 novel The Four Chambered Heart.
- Woody Allen’s 1996 flick Everyone Says I Love Youincludes a daughter named Djuna, but called DJ.
- Myla Goldberg gave the name to the little girl who disappears in The False Friend.
Djuna feels quirky and retro, like Inez, but also literary and edgy, like Zora. If you’re looking for an offbeat, Bohemian name, then Djuna could be just the thing.