Wednesday, May 25 is a big day for the small screen. After twenty-five years as the reigning queen of daytime television, Oprah Winfrey will broadcast her last show. She’s not headed from retirement – far from it. Ms. Winfrey commands a media empire, from her own television network to magazines to Harpo Productions, responsible for everything from feature films to satellite radio shows.
The story about her given name is well known. Born in rural Mississippi, her aunt chose the name Orpah from the Book of Ruth, and that’s the name recorded on her birth certificate. But Orpah never really stuck, and family and friends morphed the Biblical obscurity into a whole new name, destined for greatness.
Oprah isn’t the only name formed by a happy accident. Sometimes they’re actual errors made by the officials responsible for issuing birth certificates. Basketball player Antawn Jamison was supposed to be named Antwan – the phonetic spelling of Antoine – but his parents decided they liked the mistake.
Invented baby names get a bad rap, but there are a surprising number of mistakes, flukes, and misinterpretations that have led to some well-established names.
Annabel – She first appears in medieval Scotland. Amabel, Mabel, and other names based on Amabilis – an early saint’s name from the Latin for lovable – were common. Annabel appears to be either an error in recording, or possibly a sign that creative baby namers have been at work for centuries.
Aveline – Parents are rediscovering her as something of an Ava-Adeline smoosh, but she was used in medieval England, either from the Germanic element avi – desired, or possibly from the Latin avis – bird. She’s also the forerunner of Evelyn.
Imogen – William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is loosely based on a real-life king of the Britons. King Cymbeline has a daughter called Imogen – except that Shakespeare almost certainly called her Innogen, from a Gaelic word for maiden. Despite references to Innogen in the Bard’s notes, Imogen is used almost exclusively today.
Jade – She’s an ornamental stone and a popular choice for daughters in recent decades. The Spanish name was originally piedra de ijada – stone of the flank. It was thought that jade could cure ailments of the kidneys. In French, piedra de ijada became l’ejade, and the English interpreted it as le jade. Jade has been the English name for the stone since the 1600s.
I remember once meeting a completely adorable curly-headed little toddler named Percy. And suddenly the image of his name was turned on its head and for the first time I could see the hidden , quirky charms of Percy. It’s like when extreme he-man Bear Grylls called his son Marmaduke–one of the ultimate prissy-sissy names–all he could see ahead for his son was the cool nickname Duke (of course he did call his next one Huckleberry).
There’s a whole group of names like this that used to be described by antiquated terms we’d never dream of using today–like namby-pamby and pantywaists– sterotyped as such in old books and movies. Since that’s now such ancient history, I’m wondering, as I think of that cute little Percy, if any of these names might be fit for revival. Several have impressive–even noble –pedigrees, and some impressive namesakes as well (handy ego-saving ammo). And the bottom line is that kids today wouldn’t be aware of the old negative associations. But older generations would!
Can any of these names be saved?
CECIL: Pronounced either SEE-sill or SESS-ill, Cecil was the surname of a great 16th century English noble family, and notable bearers include designer Beaton, epic film director De Mille, jazz musician Taylor and Cecil Rhodes, patron saint of Rhodes scholars.
CEDRIC. Also pronounced with a hard of soft E, Cecil got its stereotyped image via the title character in Little Lord Fauntleroy, a velvet-suited English boy mocked by his American schoolmates. It was originally created by Sir Walter Scott for Ivanhoe and though comedian Cedric the Entertainer has done a lot to overturn its image, it still has a long way to go.
HORACE: Another once noble Roman name, a form of Horatio, associated with the great ancient poet (first name Quintus) as well as educator Mann and “Go West, Young Man” newspaperman/abolitionist Greeley. I’d say Horatio or Quintus would work a little better.
HUBERT: Yes, it was a character in The Canterbury Tales, and yes, it got some style via designer Givenchy (definitely sounds better with a French accent), but even Vice-President Humphrey (a Junior) was reputed to have hated his first name. Same goes for most other bert names–Norbert, Osbert, Egbert, Dilbert, etc.
MONTAGUE: It may be a famous Shakespearean surname, but to most people it would be effete snobbery personified.
ORVILLE: With the resurrection of some other O-names–Oliver, Oscar, Orson–Orville, with its link to the inventive Wright brother, just might have a chance–if you can push the popcorn image of Mr. Redenbacher out of your mind.
OSWALD: A name that’s appeared in Chaucer, Shakespeare and Trollope, belonged to two saints and was the given moniker of Harriet‘s husband Ozzie, it was perhaps permanently tarnished by its connection to Lee Harvey.
PERCIVAL: The pure and innocent knight who succeeded in the quest for the Holy Grail–not to mention Nellie‘s husband on Little House on the Prairie–Percival is one name I can see being taken on by a fearless baby namer.
PERCY: Might have more of a chance than the others. Not a short form of Percival but adapted from a British surname, Percy is associated with the great romantic poet Shelley, has some jazzy musical cred via Sledge and Faith–and for me, the image of that cute little boy.