Yes, there are baby names that have had longer runs at the top of the popularity list. Mary and John, certainly, and, more recently, Michael, who ruled for 44 years, yet none of them came to be seen as an epidemic or to signify a whole generation in the way that Jennifer did, though she was Number 1 for a mere fifteen years.
But in that time, between 1970 and 1984, there were 859,112 little Jennifers born in the US—enough for online Jennifer identity-loss support groups to spring up as they matured, enough for future parents to bemoan “I don’t want my child to be one of five named Jennifer in her class,” and enough for us to call our first book Beyond Jennifer and Jason. Jennifer became a one-girl baby names trend.
But why Jennifer? A once obscure Cornish form of the old Welsh Gwenhwyfar, aka Guinevere, a name that was hardly heard here before 1938—except for an appearance in a 1905 Shaw play– and which didn’t enter the Top 100 till 1956.
The first influential event was producer David O. Selznick’s rechristening of his young protegee Phylis Lee Isley as Jennifer Jones in 1941, stating in one of his famous memos, ”I don’t want anything too fancy, and I would like to get at least a first name that isn’t also carried by a dozen other girls in Hollywood.” Ha!
The newly named Jennifer Jones hit it big in her very first film, the 1943 The Song of Bernadette, for which she won the 1944 Best Actress Oscar, and the impact on the name was immediate. In 1942, Jennifer was Number 527, in 1943, Number 397, the next year, 262, and by 1945, 200, after which it continued a gradual climb. Parents embraced it as something fresh and new, more feminine and delicate than the long-running Mary, more solid, romantic and rhythmic than immediate predecessor Lisa. And nobody had a grandma named Jennifer.
But what brought Jennifer to Number 1? Much credit for this goes to Hollywood again, via a bestselling novel. Mass audiences were sobbing to the tragic tale of Jennifer Cavilleri and Oliver Barrett IV in first the Erich Segal novel and then the Ali McGraw-Ryan O’Neal film of Love Story, released in 1970, the year—yes—that Jennifer hit Number One on the Social Security list.
At this point in time we see successful grown-up survivors of that epidemic headlining everywhere—Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jennifer Garner, Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Capriati, and current Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, born at the tail end of the meteor, in 1990.
We’ve also seen the influence of Jennifer in her nicknames and short forms—the long-used Jenny reached Number 108 in 1977, and the more recently coined Jenna hit Number 50 in 1985, the very year that Jennifer left the top spot. Parents tiring of the ubiquity of Jennifer also moved on to the similar but different Jessica, and in that same year, 1985, she took over the lead, holding it for nine non-consecutive years. But Jessica, having a longer history, with Old Testament and Shakespearean cred, never had the trendy feel of her predecessor, and nor did Emily, who followed in 1996. Some parents now are moving on—or back—to Genevieve, Jen morphing into Gen.
But the fact of the matter is, we may never see a phenomenon like Jennifer again.