English: Jennifer Jones' star on Hollywood Wal...
Jennifer Jones’ star on Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6429 Hollywood Blvd. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. I am late to this conversation, but would like to add that Jennifer is a great name. It is classic, modern, and professional all at once and has a ready-to-go nickname built in. I was born in 1969 at the start of the trend and actually disliked it as I was always just Jenny (or in school Jenny P. to distinguish myself from Jennys B. and J.), and only answered to Jennifer on the first day of school or when in trouble at home. My father chose this name for me, he has been dead for over twenty years, and I have finally been able to fully appreciate this name. It is nice to have a recognizable, easily pronounced name with the common spelling with two n’s, and I don’t mind that it’s a “mom” name; I am a mom of four after all. I do like the original spelling with one n, but I know if that were mine I would have spent a lifetime saying “with one n” everywhere I went. So many parents today try to choose a name that isn’t popular, or spell their child’s name unconventionally, but most kids are delighted to “fit in” with their peers, find their name on a keychain, and not have to explain the actions of their parents. Long live ordinary!

  2. Although Jennifer isn’t one I’d use personally*, I do like what you said about using a name like this one that’s now in “dated” territory – it’d be familiar yet probably unique in her class (in fact as you mentioned if there are any others in the school they’re more likely to be teachers or other staff than classmates!).

    *The two “70s-era” names on my list for consideration are Melissa and Amy (sorry Abby, but I like the name you disliked having growing up). There are also some even “older” ones on the list as well. I think the key when using a name that may be seen as dated is to avoid the names that were the true tryndees of the time (e.g. Brandy or Brittany, or the equivalent of today’s Madison or Nevaeh) and stick to the ones that have a history backing them up (like the others mentioned here). I’d also probably use a middle name that’s more current or not date-stamped to give her another option if she dislikes having a “mom” name. I think it’s funny when parents thought that names like Ava and Sophia were so unique, when Amanda and Stephanie (or Ann and Susan) would be more distinctive for the child’s generation.

  3. My great-grandma’s sister Jeanetta, but she was always called Jennie. Apparently my extended family was just tickled when my cousin Jennifer was born in 1968. My mom on the other hand was furious, because she had planned on naming her baby Jennifer… (my brother was born a few months later.) By the time I was born in 1973 my mom was over the slight, but couldn’t use the name anymore… which was good, because 4 months later my dad’s side welcomed a little Jennifer as well. (A 2nd cousin is named Regina, but of course she’s also called Jenny.)

    Back to the name, I like Jennie, but think I’d use it as a short form of Genevra or Virginia or I’d go back to the original Jeanetta.

    There was a baby Jennifer in the 1959 movie “On the Beach.” The part is tiny, so I doubt it had anything to do with the rising popularity of the name, but when we watched the movie I was shocked to hear the name.

    1. Julie, I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve read the book. I’ve just looked up Neville Shute and discovered that he had daughters called Shirley and Heather, born in the 1930s, I think … I don’t recall if the baby’s name was given in the novel, but I probably wouldn’t have noticed it as out of place … fascinating.

  4. Even though I’m part of the Jennifer-Jason generation and as such have major ‘Jen’ fatigue, I can still objectively see Jennifer as a pretty name and understand why it got so popular. I don’t care for its nicknames, but again that might just be overexposure. I’d be happy to meet a little Jennifer these days.

    I feel there’s one piece of the puzzle missing in your analysis of how Jennifer got to be so popular in the 1970s: the song “Jennifer Juniper” by Donovan, which came out in 1968 and was a hit in the US, Canada, the UK and beyond. Love Story most certainly gave the name a boost, but as you say it was already popular by the time the film came out.

  5. My great grandmother was Jennie. I’ve always had a fondness for it. My BFF (from Kindergarten) is Jennifer/Jen/Jeff. Another BFF (from college) is Jennifer/Jenny.

  6. I love Jenny. Love it more, I’ve been told, than a name-nerd should. I wanted to BE a Jenny when I was little (in the ’80s) and I named a favourite doll Jenny when I was small, along with two similarly-rebelling-with-conformity others named, yes, Suzy and Susie.

    I don’t dislike Jennifer either – I like the -er ending without occupational name baggage – but I’m more neutral on it. Could Jane to Jenny work today? I’ve toyed with Genevieve and Imogen as well. Most people I know associate Jen/Jenny with Jennifer first and foremost, the only older historical tidbits would be Jenny Lind (my grandmother had a portrait of her in her house) and Jenny Wren from the nursery rhymes.

    1. Jenny as a nickname for Jane would absolutely work. Jenny was a nickname for Jane long before it was a nickname for Jennifer.