Invented Baby Names: Happy accidents that work
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.
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on May 23rd, 2011 at 6:52 am
How interesting! Cool to see all the Nevaehs of the past!
on May 23rd, 2011 at 7:05 am
Very interesting! My mum was supposed to be Julianne, but whoever did her birth certificate wrote Julie Ann. Not as much of a change as many of the names above, but a change none the less. (A change that her parents stuck with.)
on May 23rd, 2011 at 7:46 am
When I read about Tirzah in the Bible I read it Tizrah, a name prn. I still love and might would consider “inventing” for a daughter.
Ironically just last night I met a Tirzah and my friend mispronounced it Tizrah.
on May 23rd, 2011 at 9:10 am
Oh, I love Rosamund/Rosamond, (but the ‘u’ wins for me!)
Too bad Josie & Rosie rhyme… 🙁
on May 23rd, 2011 at 9:16 am
JuliaDrucilla, funny you mentioned Nevaeh! The spelling Neveah – which is what my fingers want to type anyhow – seems to be catching on. “It’s heaven spelled backwards, only with a typo, but the typo makes more sense …”
Tizrah … betcha there are some Tizrahs out there, spotlightstarlit. It’s just like Orpah/Oprah.
Whitney Gigandet Said
on May 23rd, 2011 at 11:43 am
It didn’t make a new name, but my dad’s name was supposed to be named Ronald, but Ronnie somehow got put down on the birth certificate instead.
on May 23rd, 2011 at 12:08 pm
Correct me if I am wrong, but I have heard Oprah tell the story of her name and I believe it became Oprah because, and she speaks about this openly, her family was mostly illiterate and didn’t know they inverted the letters on her birth certificate. I just wanted to mention it because it is a great story with a little more to it than “Oprah never really stuck”. If it had been spelled correctly she would be Orpah. I wonder how this would have affected her future? That’s an aspect of naming I always find fascinating.
on May 23rd, 2011 at 12:42 pm
And don’t forget Condoleezza Rice, whose name was a parental misread of the musical designation “Con dolcezza,” meaning “with sweetness.” But a misspelling on a birth certificate is one thing: a tattoo is another. I saw a girl the other day whose arm announced her as “Garbiella”.
on May 23rd, 2011 at 1:15 pm
Neil Gaiman thought he made up Coraline, but learned he did not: http://www.babynamewizard.com/archives/2011/2/when-authors-invent-names-or-not
on May 23rd, 2011 at 2:17 pm
@kashed22 – I thought I had heard Oprah’s story that way, too, but I found this clip: http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/win0int-1 A few clips down she explains that it is “Orpah” on her birth certificate, but Oprah everywhere else. Oprah uses the verb “translated” to describe how Orpah became Oprah.
@Joanne – Garbiella? Gulp! And I didn’t know that was how Condoleezza Rice got her name – great addition.
@m – Great link, thanks – and it makes sense that Coraline would’ve been used in the past, doesn’t it?
Leslie Owen Said
on May 23rd, 2011 at 6:12 pm
Along the Antwan lines, we had a student whose name was supposed to be “Antwan” and is prn that way, except spelled “Antqwan”. The reason is pretty convoluted, but it has to do with the dad and the birth certificate….
Great blog. I knew about most of these but it was fun reading them again.
on May 23rd, 2011 at 10:40 pm
I had a friend whose parents pretended to name Olga, a russian name very widely used here in Mexico, but a mistake in her birth certificate became her an Ogla, and believe or not, she love it!!! she said that her parents liked the way it appeared in the certificate and it made her feel unique. Anyway it is pretty weird and everybody always asked if it was correct.
on May 24th, 2011 at 9:38 am
My great-grandmother’s name was also a mistaken form of Orpah, only hers turned out as Orpha. She liked it enough to give it to my grandmother, who liked it enough to name all four of her daughters something else entirely.
on May 24th, 2011 at 12:15 pm
I have a friend who named her daughter Georgia but her husband misspelled it as George which did not please my friend at all. They stuck with it though a just nn her Georgia or Georgie.
on May 24th, 2011 at 1:25 pm
Wow! I was shocked to see my daughter’s name (Aveline) mentioned here (and now among the top searches on this site) We thought we’d found one pretty far off the radar! I guess I’m ok with it getting a little more popular though, if only so fewer people mispronounce it. 🙂
on May 25th, 2011 at 3:02 pm
My mom spelt my name as Guilia on my birth certificate (by accident), but I have never been fond of that spelling or the fact that it would change the pronunciation, so it my name is Guilia on most official documents (but not all) and Giulia most everywhere else.
Sunday Summary: 5/29/11 | Appellation Mountain Said
on May 29th, 2011 at 8:04 am
[…] of celebrity names, Oprah inspired last week’s post at Nameberry. There’s no post here tomorrow thanks to the […]
on May 31st, 2011 at 10:55 am
For me personally, invented names are something of a dirty pleasure. When I find one that I like I am usually hesitant to tell folks because I fear rejection, or worse…namenappers! XD Recently though, I happened upon the name Esmerine (love!) sure it might be in danger of Twilight association (because of the Es…and related comments I have received) but I find it perfectly lovely all the same. So much so in fact that I have added it to my favorites list.
On another note two of the worst invented names I have ever encountered would have to be those of girls who attended high school with me.
Ka-a (pronounced Ka-dash-ah) yes you pronounce the symbol!
Shithead (pronounced Sha-theed)
on August 8th, 2011 at 7:56 pm
I go to school with a girl whose name is Michaela, and at first glance that’s mick-ay-la, but its pronounced like the boys name Michael, but with an a. The story is that when she was being baptized, the priest mispronounced it, but her parents liked it and decided to use it instead.
on August 28th, 2011 at 5:43 pm
I had always heard that Oprah’s name was actually misspelled on her birth certificate as Oprah.
on November 21st, 2011 at 1:46 pm
I liked this post!! it has interesting information.
on May 2nd, 2012 at 8:09 am
@Bambi, I first liked Esmerine, until I realized it sounds like a medication! Wow those names from school are awful.
on September 7th, 2012 at 10:42 pm
I guess this is a good example that not every invented name is bad. I like Imogen and Rosamond.
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