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.
Not many people are naming their babies Madonna….yet. But other formerly one-person names are now in play.
Elvis, for instance, not to mention Presley. Elvis Costello (born Declan McManus) seemed to break the spell on that one, along with one of the now-grown sons of actor Tony Perkins and photographer Berry Berenson. Today, Presley is the 340th most popular baby girl name, and there are 300 little Elvi born every year.
Other one-person names that are now fair game for baby namers:
There is, however, still only one OPRAH.
Yet for every celebrity that inspires a rash of little namesakes, there seems to be another, equally attractive and popular star whose name doesn’t become famous, at least for babies. Oprah may have the power to catapult books to bestsellerdom and even to influence presidential elections, but the millions of moms who love her don’t seem to love her name. Madonna may have legions of fans over several decades, but there’s still only one Madonna. Okay, two.
Maybe you’ll say that the problem is in the names Oprah and Madonna themselves and true, those might be difficult monikers to carry. But that doesn’t seem to always be the reason a name doesn’t achieve the star power of its original bearer.
Case in point: Diana. We were sure, through the long reign of Princess Diana, that her name would rise up the charts. It’s a beautiful name with classic roots that sounded neither dowdy nor trendy. But Diana, as a name, never took off.
A lot of the other hot and not celebrity-influenced names are similarly difficult to figure out.