Thanks to Another for suggesting our Name of the Day
In 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth published his Historia Regum Britanniae. Despite “history” featuring prominently in the title, it’s really a mix of legend – more fiction than fact.
One of this stories detailed the life of Queen Gwendolena. She overthrew her husband to rule Britain independently, circa the eleventh century BC.
Some theorize that Geoffrey stumbled across the Welsh name Gwenddoleu – who did, in fact, live and rule in the sixth century. But he was a he – and we’re not sure if he inherited his throne or claimed it in conflict.
Still, Queen Gwendolena’s tale is compelling. Born a Cornish princess, she married the King of the Britons. When he put her aside in favor of his mistress, Gwendolena returned home to Cornwall to raise an army. She defeated her husband, ousted her rival, and had her stepdaughter drowned. (The name Sabrina also has its beginnings in this tale.)
It’s said the queen ruled peacefully for fifteen years, then was succeeded by her son.
Edmund Spenser refers to her as Gwendolene in his 1590 epic The Faerie Queen and plenty of others have referred to her in literature and art over the centuries.
Even if the queen never reigned, the name appears to be authentically Welsh.
After all, Gwenllian, Gwenhwyfar, and other Gwen- names appear in the historical record. It means fair. The second part, dolen, means ring.
Edmund Spenser’s Gwendolene might not have caught on, but literature eventually boosted the name.
First came Gwendolen Harleth, 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.
LYN, LEN, or LINE?
All of these spellings might have you wondering: which one makes the most sense?
Some argue that Gwendolen is correct. It’s true that, in Welsh, the -wyn ending is masculine and -wen feminine.
But that’s not the norm in English. So maybe it’s no surprise that Gwendolyn has always been the most popular spelling in the US. In fact, Gwendolyn is the only spelling to rank in the US Top 1000, and it has appeared every year since 1900, and many years from 1880 through 1899, too.
Gwendoline – as in Caroline and Josephine – remains in sparing use. Think of actor Gwendoline Christie, of Game of Thrones and Star Wars fame.
BY THE NUMBERS
The baby name Gwendolyn appears in the US Top 1000 as early as 1880, the very first year for which data is available.
By the start of the twentieth century, Gwendolyn was climbing in use. It would continue to do so until the name peaked in the 1950s.
One possible reason for some of the name’s early rise?
Silent film star Gwendolyn Pates made a name for herself in silent film during the 1910s. Some roles credited her as Gwendoline, but the -lyn spelling seems to win out. Pates played adventurous characters – women who ran for mayor and flew airplanes. It’s a quality that still attaches to the name, long after Pates faded from the spotlight.
The name surfaces in Hollywood briefly, at least once more. In the 1934 college comedy Girl o’ My Dreams, actor Mary Carlisle plays Gwen. She would’ve been at the height of her fame then. (Oh, and get this: Carlisle’s birth name? Gwendolyn Witter.)
As the name started to crest in popularity, poet Gwendolyn Brooks was establishing herself professionally. In 1950, she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. It’s the first time an African-American received the prestigious award. Her career flourished in the decades that followed, and her legacy is still celebrated today. That’s particularly true in her hometown of Chicago.
Poets might not normally influence parents’ name choices, but the baby name Gwendolyn was more than that. As Brooks broke down barriers, it became a hero name.
STEFANI and STACY
The baby name Gwendolyn peaked in the 1950s. Plenty of those Gwendolyns almost certainly preferred to be called Gwen.
As an independent name, Gwen never quite reached the heights of Gwendolyn. But it peaked around 1960, even if it has consistently been less popular than the full name.
Two famous Gwens help keep it in the spotlight.
First, Spider-Man gives us Gwen Stacy, full name Gwendolyne Maxine Stacy. She’s introduced in 1965, a college classmate for secret web-slinger Peter Parker. She dies tragically, but hey – this is the comics. And so Gwen returns as part of the series, time and time again. At one point, she’s even Spider-Woman … or Spider-Gwen.
Then there’s Gwen Renee Stefani, lead singer for pop super group No Doubt. (Fun fact: one of their early hits was “Spiderwebs.”) No Doubt hit it big with 1995 album Tragic Kingdom. But that was only the beginning for Stefani. She’s since become a successful solo artist, a celebrity judge on The Voice, a successful designer, and all-around style icon.
The baby name Gwendolyn has climbed in use every year since 1995. (That tracks with No Doubt’s debut and Gwen Stefani’s arrival in the public eye.) As of 2019, it reached #370 – the name’s highest ranking since the late 1970s. It’s well ahead of just Gwen, at #832.
While the name’s 1950s peak suggests it’s not quite ready for revival, it looks like the baby name Gwendolyn is set to return ahead of schedule. (Normally, the 100-year rule suggests that Gwendolyn shouldn’t be back until around 2040 or so.)
But the name offers plenty of appealing qualities. It does feel vintage, but also bold. Between Stefani and Spider-Gwen, this isn’t exactly a shy, retiring name. And yet, Gwendolyn feels a little like Evelyn or Genevieve, names that might seem slightly more demure.
File the baby name Gwendolyn with Matilda and Penelope, spirited choices with history aplenty. They’re just too good to leave in the past.
What do you think of the baby name Gwendolyn? How would you spell it?
First published on September 16, 2008, this post was revised substantially and republished on February 9, 2021.