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Classic Girls’ Names: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

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I recently watched one of the seemingly countless Masterpiece Theater/BBC/theatrical versions of Jane Eyre, and I couldn’t help noticing how many times this particularly dreamy Rochester (Toby Stephens) repeated the heroine’s name, imbuing it each time with various shades of sweetness, sadness, passion, and more–and it made me fall in love with not only him but the name Jane.  And to start wondering what’s become of baby-name Jane, one of the most classic girls’ names.

For a long time Jane was so popular that she became the Generic American Girl’s Name, as in Jane Doe/John Doe and G.I. Jane/G.I. Joe and the everygirl in the Dick and Jane readers.  In 1935 there were 8,900 baby Janes born in this country, whereas in 2010, there were just a little over 800 in all of the U.S.

So why did Jane get shunted aside, while her male equivalents have survived and thrived?  Was it because—unlike Mary and Elizabeth—she didn’t have biblical roots? Was this strong, simple name a victim of over-smooshing—too many Maryjanes and Bettyjanes and Sarajanes for it to stand alone?  Was it mortally injured by the pejorative phrase Plain Jane?

We think Jane should reclaim her rightful place beside stalwarts James and John and Joseph.  And here’s why.

Jane has history

Jane has been around since Tudor times, a feminization of John, as were Jean and Joan and Johanna.  The first Jane of note in English history was Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, followed by the tragic nine-day Queen Lady Jane Grey.  In the U.S., Jane was a double-digit favorite from 1911 to 1965, though, surprisingly, she never got higher than 35.

Jane is a literary star

In addition to the novelist Jane Austen (who used her own name for characters in several of her books), there is, of course, Jane Eyre, as well as many other Janes in the novels of her sister Anne Brontë, and of George Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Henry James and Virginia Woolf.  Then there was Miss (Jane) Marple, Dick & Jane, Tarzan’s Jane, and vampire Jane in the Twilight series.  We could go on and on.

Jane has other wonderful real-life namesakes

To name just a few: Pulitzer Peace Prize-winning social worker Jane Addams, frontierswoman Calamity Jane (born Martha Jane), TV journalist Jane Pauley, primatologist Jane Goodall (that’s the young Jane Goodall in the illustration), the indomitable Jane Fonda and current fave Jane Lynch.

Jane rocks

Putting aside Jane’s Addiction and Janie’s Got a GunJane has been serenaded by many solo artists and groups, including Stevie Nicks and Barenaked Ladies (Jane), David Bowie, Cowboy Junkies, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground (Sweet Jane), the Rolling Stones (Lady Jane)), Rod Stewart (Baby Jane), and –oops—Jane is a Groupie by Sly and the Family Stone—plus dozens more.

Jane is still a cool middle name

Although Jane hasn’t yet made inroads into the celebrisphere as a first name, there have been a number of starbabies middle-named Jane; among the ones we’ve spotted are an Isabelle and Isabella Jane, Olivia Jane, Savannah Jane, Alexandra Jane, Sarame Jane, Clementine Jane, Evan Jane, London Jane and (how Brontë can you get?) Charlotte Jane.

Jane has cool cognates

If you still think Jane is too plain, you can always exoticize it with one of its many interesting international variations:

Giovanna, Gianna–Italian

Ioanna—Greek

Ionna, Ivanna, Zhanna—Russian

Ivana, Ivanka, Janica—Czech

Jaana, Janne—Finnish

Jana—Polish, Czech

Jeanne, Jehane/Jehanne—French

Jenica—Romanian

Jensine—Scandinavian

JohannaGerman, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian

Juana, Juanita—Spanish

Ohanna—Armenian

Siân—Welsh

Sine, Siobhán, Sinéad –Gaelic.

Is there any downside to Jane?  Well, she might pose a problem for nickname obsessives—Janie, like Jeanie, Joanie and Junie–does smack of mid-century sitcomness.

Heads up!  Be sure to come back tomorrow to check out our predictions for Baby Names 2012!

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