She’s among the most popular names of the 1970s, but where did she come from?
Thanks to Sophie for suggesting Jennifer as our Baby Name of the Day.
The easiest explanation is that she’s a Cornish spin on the Welsh name Gwenhwyfar. In Norman French she became Guinevere, and the wife of King Arthur. You know the rest.
But Cornish names are a quirky set, from Jory to Elowen, and they’re not widely embraced outside Cornwall. Jenifer was the more common spelling through the years, though others were seen.
Credit for Jennifer’s wider audience is typically given to George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma. The play debuted in 1906. Here’s the plot: Dr. Ridgeon can cure tuberculosis, but it is a costly process, and spots at his clinic are in high demand. Along comes Jennifer and her ne’er do well husband, who also happens to be a talented artist. The doctor falls hard for the lovely Jennifer. But should he be persuaded to treat her husband as a result? Dilemma gets to the heart of many a thorny question of medical ethics, most of which still resonate today.
It’s worth noting that while Jennifer was exotic in 1906, Jenny was familiar. She’d been a short form of Jane and Joanna for centuries. Swedish opera singer Johanna Lind was known to the world as Jenny Lind. The nineteenth century superstar made waves during her 1850 tour of the US. Jenny has appeared in the US Top 1000 every year since 1880.
Jennifer, on the other hand, debuted in 1938 at #937, and experienced a meteoric rise akin to Isabella. She’d reached #397 by 1943 and #118 in 1950. In 1956, she made the US Top 100, and ten years later, she ranked #10. By 1970, she was the #1 name and would remain in that spot right through 1984. It wasn’t until 1991 that she left the Top Ten. Today she’s #134 – solidly a mom name, but used more often than you might guess.
So what happened along the way?
- In 1942, Veronica Lake wore the name in supernatural rom-com I Married a Witch.
- Phylis Isley became an Oscar-winning actress as Jennifer Jones. Her breakout role was 1943’s Song of Bernadette. A serious career followed, with a mix of dramatic, romantic, and even controversial roles.
- 1948 movie Portrait of Jennie starred none other than Jennifer Jones in the title role of the supernatural mystery romance.
- 1953 film Jennifer starred Ida Lupino. But Ida played Agnes, a caretaker for an empty estate. Jennifer was the prior caretaker, and she’s gone missing.
- A film adaptation of Doctor’s Dilemma in 1958 featured lovely French film actress Leslie Caron as Jennifer.
- Love Story came out in December of 1970, based on the novel by Erich Segal same year. That might’ve helped tip Jennifer into the #1 spot, but she was already a sensation.
What followed? Tommy Tutone belted out her phone number: 867-5309. Robin Wright played Forrest Gump’s crush, Jenny, in the 1994 movie. There’s J. Lo and Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Garner and Connelly and Grey. The Duggars finally named their seventeenth child Jennifer. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games film adaptations.
She’s gone from an unusual import to an ordinary name, from an obvious choice to a dated one. But give the name to your daughter today, and she’ll likely be the only Jennifer in her class – except for possibly the teacher.