The origins of 10 popular given names in the writings of famous authors
Literature has given us many – well, many given names. Popular first names have been created specially for novels or plays, and have become established as names for thousands if not millions of people born ever since. Here are ten Christian names which we owe to literature, either because they were invented or, at the very least, greatly popularised by writers. Writers from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde have been responsible for creating or popularising first names, and although not all of them are hugely popular (there aren’t as many Dorians in the world, for instance, as there are Richards), they have nevertheless had an afterlife beyond the literary character who was the first to bear them.
Vanessa. The man who gave us Gulliver’s Travels (and, quite possibly, a treatise on human excrement) also gave us this girls’ name. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) came up with it as a pet name for his friend and lover Esther Vanhomrigh, by taking the ‘Van’ from her surname and altering her given name into ‘essa’. A new name was born. It appears in Swift’s poem Cadenus and Vanessa, written in 1712.
Pamela. Sir Philip Sidney came up with the name Pamela in his vast prose work Arcadia, which is sometimes regarded as one of the first English novels. The name Pamela means ‘all sweetness’.
Miranda. This is the first of several names on this list whose popularity, at least, we owe to William Shakespeare. The name of Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest, Miranda means ‘worthy of admiration’. In the play it is Miranda who speaks the famous words, ‘O brave new world!’ – giving us one of the most famous book titles of the twentieth century, too. (We’ve discussed that novel in our list of Aldous Huxley facts.)
Amanda. This name doesn’t appear in any of Shakespeare’s plays, but we still probably owe its popularity to him, as it seems to have arisen as a popular given name because of Miranda: whereas Miranda means ‘worthy of admiration’, Amanda means ‘worthy of love’, from the Latin amare. So, although the name may predate Shakespeare’s Miranda, it is most likely down to Shakespeare (albeit indirectly) that Amanda has attained the popularity it has.
Jessica. The name of Shylock’s daughter in The Merchant of Venice, Jessica is possibly formed as an Anglicised version of Iscah, a Hebrew name rendered as Jesca in English translations of the Bible from Shakespeare’s time.
Viola. Also from Shakespeare, from Twelfth Night. The name is from the Latin for ‘violet’, though such flowery names in English are overwhelmingly nineteenth-century in origin (with the exception of Rose, which is earlier).
Imogen. We have Shakespeare to thank for this name, too – sort of. It appears in his late play Cymbeline, a romance set in ancient Roman Britain. Imogen is the name of the daughter of the title character – or is it? The name probably started life as ‘Innogen’ – a Celtic name meaning ‘girl’ or ‘maiden’ – but somebody misread the double-n as an ‘m’, and the name Imogen was born. (We’ve got more interesting Shakespeare facts here.)
Cedric. The name Cedric has its origins in Sir Walter Scott’s cavalier attitude to Anglo-Saxon. When researching for his classic novel Ivanhoe (1819), set during the twelfth century and featuring the character of Robin Hood, Scott came across the genuine Saxon name Cerdic and transposed the third and fourth letters. Thus Cedric was born. (We have more Sir Walter Scott facts here.)
Thelma. From Marie Corelli’s 1887 novel Thelma. Corelli would go on to enjoy bestselling success with her 1895 novel The Sorrows of Satan. ‘Thelma’ is taken from the Greek for ‘will’ or ‘volition’; in the novel, Thelma is a Norwegian princess.
Dorian. Most famously used by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which was certainly responsible for its subsequent use as a male given name. It is taken from the name of an ethnic group in ancient Greece, the Dorians – probably to suggest the Hellenic spirit (Greek love) that the novel tacitly endorses.
Some names aren’t on this list, such as Lorna and Wendy, which readers may have been expecting to find. Lorna existed as a girls’ name before R. D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, and Wendy predates J. M. Barrie’s famous use of it in Peter Pan (for more on this, see our facts about Peter Pan here). They could have been added here, but we thought we’d go with the less well-known examples. Are there any we’ve missed off?
If you enjoyed these literary origins of popular names, check out our list of words which originated in literature and our interesting facts about words, including the surprising etymology of the word ‘bad’.
Image: John William Waterhouse, Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, 1916; Wikimedia Commons.