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.
Stella Maris – Stella is a style star, and you know Maris as Niles Crane’s unseen wife on Frasier. Catholics refer to Mary as Stella Maris – star of the sea – but that’s based on a mistake. St. Jerome referred to Mary as stilla maris – a drop in the sea – in his fourth century writings.
Rosamond – Rosamund Clifford was a medieval beauty, and mistress to King Henry II of England. Her name was from solid Germanic elements referring to horses, but thanks to the fame of the lovely Ms. Clifford, the definition changed. Her nickname was “Rose of the World” – a play on the Latin phrase rosa mundi. It stuck, and Rosamond is now considered a pretty, botanical choice.
Cedric – A fifth century Anglo-Saxon king answered to Cerdic, but Sir Walter Scott’s reinterpreted the name as Cedric in his nineteenth century novel Ivanhoe. It isn’t certain if Scott made an error or a deliberate choice when he changed the name, but ever since a pre-Twilight Robert Pattison played an ill-fated Quidditch player in the Harry Potter series, Cedric has attracted more attention.
Diego – The saintly James might be the name with the most interesting evolution. Early Spanish forms of James would have been Iago or Yago. Santiago means Saint James. Split Santiago in a different place, and you arrive at Tiago or Diego – modern Spanish equivalents of the evergreen, international name.
James – Few names are as well-traveled or as often-transformed as Jacob and James. The Old Testament Yaaqov became the Latin Iacobus, and later, Iacombus and then Iacomus. It isn’t exactly a mistake, but it is a long, twisted set of changes that created two of the most popular boys’ names in the US.
Nigel – The legendary high kings of Ireland included Niall. When scholars attempted to Latinize his name, they incorrectly assumed Niall was derived from the word black – and so they used Nigellus. By the twelfth century, men were named Nigel – an accidentally formed, very British-sounding version of Neil.
There are more invented baby name stories like these – cases where the tiniest of changes can result in a whole new name, possibly one that will eclipse its original form.