Today’s choice often masquerades as a medieval moniker, but probably wasn’t in use until the Victorian era.
Thanks to Another for suggesting our Name of the Day: Gwendolyn.
When we first considered Gwendolyn, we were quite certain we’d find her in myth and legend.
Sure enough, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of Queen Gwendolena in Historia Regum Britanniae in 1136. While it’s possible there was a queen who overthrew her husband and ruled Britain independently, there’s very little history in Geoffrey’s Historia, and no evidence supporting this particular tale. Some theorize that the author stumbled across the Welsh masculine name Guendoleu, mistook it for a feminine appellation and then tweaked the spelling to make it appear even more so.
Despite her questionable origins, the name’s roots are Welsh. Gwen, Gwenllian and Gwenhwyfar are all found in the Middle Ages. (Gwenhwyfar would eventually become the 1970s blockbuster Jennifer.) Gwen appears in the historical record as early as the 5th century, when the Catholic Church records a Saint Gwen in Wales. Other records list her as Wenn, Blanche and Candida, so that’s not an absolute confirmation. Gwen means white or fair, and dolen is usually attributed as ring. Gwendolyn might not be historic, but we can legitimately call her Welsh.
She first entered common use in the mid-1800s, when the Victorians mined multiple sources – botanical names, lesser read histories and legends – to find new naming possibilities.
Two literary uses of the name cemented her place in the lexicon:
- Gwendolen Harleth is the heroine in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Published as a serial beginning in 1876, the character is lovely and polished, but suffers much in the story.
- Gwendolen Fairfax is part of one of the two couples ultimately united in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The play debuted in 1895.
Gwendoline was also an 1886 opera by French composer Emmanuel Chabrier.
The ine ending mimics Katherine and Caroline, so that adaptation is logical. After Eliot and Wilde used the en ending, we’d expect that to become dominant, and it did for a time.
So where did the “y” come from?
While Gwendolens appear in US census records, especially in the early 20th century, only Gwendolyn ever charts in Top 1000. Our first guess was that Gwendolyn owed her spelling change to the popularity of JM Barrie’s Wendy in Peter Pan. While there are other explanations for Wendy’s name, she is often linked to Gwendolyn and considered a diminutive form. Unfortunately, Barrie’s play debuted in 1904.
Perhaps it is simply evidence that switching out for a “y” has always been popular, even before the days of Jordyn and Katelyn. Myrtle and Lydia, Gladys and Evelyn were all popular choices in the 1880s, and while Catherine and Katherine were more common, Kathryn also ranked in the Top 100.
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks was born in 1917, but first published in the 1940s. She may be part of the reason Gwendolyn peaked at #112 in 1953, but scarcely explains the “e” to “y” switch, which was effectively complete several decades earlier.
Today Gwendolyn stands at #650. Gwendolen and Gwendoline are all but extinct. It’s not a current favorite, but there is something timeless about this historically flawed choice. With Gwen Stefani in the limelight, it takes on an undeniably artistic edge. It’s not the best option if you’re hoping for an authentic Welsh heritage name, but it has a certain quirky charm and manages to be underused while remaining familiar.