She’s a Shakespearean invention that became an 80s staple.
Our Baby Name of the Day is Jessica.
Jessica was invented, and it was none other than William Shakespeare responsible for her creation.
In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica is the daughter of Shylock. Shylock is the moneylender at odds with Antonio. Jessica is Shylock’s daughter, and she runs away with Lorenzo. The newlyweds take a big chunk of Shylock’s fortune with them. Things appear to end well for the couple, but there’s an awful lot to consider around the ideas of faith and family.
Jessica isn’t the memorable character from Merchant. That distinction probably belongs to the brainy Portia and her day-saving eloquence.
And yet, the play is the launch for the name in English. The Old Testament names was Iscah or Yiskah, a niece of Abraham mentioned briefly in the Book of Genesis. By Shakespeare’s time, vernacular translations of the Bible into English were slowly becoming available – even though they were officially disallowed. In John Wycliffe’s translation – the most complete and widely circulated – Iscah was spelled Jescha.
Jessie was also sometimes heard as a pet name for Jane, Jean, Janet and other feminine forms of John. It was especially true in Scotland, where Jean was the preferred form of the name.
Jessica saw sparing use in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You might think of:
- The 1890 portrait by Dennis Miller Bunker in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. It is titled Jessica, but the sitter was a paid model. I can’t track down Bunker’s inspiration for the painting’s name.
- The sixth of seven Mitford siblings was born in 1917. Jessica Mitford became a writer, though she was better known by her nickname, Decca.
- Jessica Tandy was born in 1909. Her long acting career started on the London stage. She moved to the US and scored a Tony Award in 1948, but success came even later in life, when she won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy.
The name remained obscure in the early twentieth century, started to catch on in 1930s and 40s, and gained through the 1950s and 60s. By 1970, Jessica ranked #98.
Other influential uses included:
- Lady Jessica is a key character in the 1965 novel Dune, as well as its sequels and film adaptation.
- Founding Allman Brothers member Dickey Betts gave the name to his newborn daughter in 1972, and the band released a famous instrumental titled “Jessica” the next year. Even if you don’t recognize the name of the song, you will surely find the piece of music familiar.
- Kate Capshaw’s daughter Jessica arrived in 1976, but that’s ages before she was well-known.
- Television gave us Jessica Fletcher – Angela Landsbury’s popular writer-sleuth on Murder, She Wrote in 1984.
- One Life to Live welcomed Jessica Buchanan in 1986. She’s got a great middle name, too – Eugenia.
By 1976, Jessica had moved into the Top Ten, where she remained through 2000. From 1985 to 1990, she was the #1 name for girls in the US, and again in 1993, 1994, and 1995.
Notables now include:
- Actresses like Alba, Biehl, and Szohr.
- Jessica Simpson – pictured above – is famous as a singer, reality star, and sometimes actress, too.
- Tons of fictional characters, including animated bombshell Jessica Rabbit, Jessie Spano from Saved by the Bell, and one of the Wakefield twins from Sweet Valley High.
At one point, Jessica felt like a glittering golden girl – head cheerleader or student body president, or both. Today she’s headed into mom name territory, and falling out of use quickly. But she’s also been solidly established as a modern staple with literary roots. As Olivia heads into her dotage, her great-grandchildren will probably answer to Jessica.
Jessica is still widely used in the UK. I know sooooooooo many that it just tires me out.
Great write up!
I have always liked my name. It has served me well. It’s not noticed as anything spectacular that gets complimented, but on the flip side it’s not teased, misspelled, mispronounced, given weird looks, etc. It’s just kind of… there. And that’s a good thing to me!
Feminine, but not overly so. Classy, but approachable. Familiar. Pretty. It’s a great name!
Thanks, Jess – glad to hear how well Jessica wears!