Secret Library

The Curious Origins of the Girls’ Name Wendy

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of a popular girls’ name with literary connections

Did the girls’ name Wendy really originate with Peter Pan? The claim is often made. And the answer is both simple and not simple.

There are a few given names whose origins can firmly and definitively be traced back to works of literature. Jonathan Swift came up with the name Vanessa, for instance – it was his pet name for Esther Vanhomrigh, his close friend (and, probably, lover) – while Sir Philip Sidney, in his Arcadia, coined the name Pamela (it literally means ‘all sweetness’: pan mella). Other names certainly get a leg up from writers: Shirley, for instance, was a boys’ name until Charlotte Brontë gave her titular heroine that name in a novel of 1849.

But if you asked the man in the street to name a – well, a name that had definitely been created in a famous literary work, he’d probably … well, he’d probably look at you askance before swiftly walking by. But if he did deign to answer your question, and could come up with an answer, he’d probably reply: ‘Wendy, from Peter Pan.’

Before we get to Wendy and the origins of the name, here’s another question for you: in which book did the character of Peter Pan first appear, and what was the target readership of the book? Peter Pan, the play for children?

Think again. The boy who wouldn’t grow up first appeared, ironically, in a book for adults, a little-known 1902 novel called The Little White Bird. However, it was the stage play Barrie produced two years later which really brought the boy with severe arrested development to a mass audience, and Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was a huge hit in theatres in 1904 and has been enchanting children and adults alike ever since.

On stage, Peter Pan was a huge hit, as were the Lost Boys, Tinkerbell, Captain Hook – and, of course, Wendy. But did Barrie invent the name Wendy?

He didn’t – and yet, he (kind of) did. The name for the character Wendy Darling in Barrie’s play came from Barrie Margaret Henley, the five-year-old daughter of William Ernest Henley (who was himself the inspiration for Long John Silver in Treasure Island ). The young Margaret called Barrie her ‘fwendy-wendy’ (as in ‘friendy-wendy’), and Barrie ‘invented’ the name Wendy from that.

So, if we trace the origins of the name Wendy back to Margaret, we can say that a five-year-old girl was (ultimately) responsible for the name. Sadly, she didn’t live to see the afterlife her pet name for Barrie would go on to have. Indeed, tragically, she didn’t even see her sixth birthday: she died of cerebral meningitis, aged just five.

Except … the name Wendy did exist before J. M. Barrie, and before Margaret Henley. Indeed, it’s recorded as early as 1615 – but as a boys’ name.

The name also appears in records from the seventeenth century as a surname (much as Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley started out, long before her novel, as a masculine name and family name). The 1850 US census records one man named Wendy and seven women with that given name: perhaps the earliest girls to have been so named.

But curiously, the oft-repeated claim that the name Wendy is related to the Welsh Gwendolen appears not to be true. And as the link provided in the previous paragraph reveals, ‘Gwendolyn’ is not even a traditional Welsh-language name but an Anglo-Welsh hybrid originally created from a medieval English misreading of a male Welsh name, and popularized by the English in English-language literature. As is so often the case with these things, it’s all Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fault: Jodi McMaster writes that the medieval historian (if ‘historian’ is not too much of a stretch) misread the Old Welsh masculine name Guendoleu as Guendolen, and then Latinised it.

In conclusion, then, Barrie didn’t exactly invent the girls’ name Wendy, but its use as a given name for girls before he came along and gave us Wendy Darling was so rare that he may as well have done. Nor was ‘Wendy’ officially recorded as a form of the Welsh name Gwendolen – which, in any case, isn’t a Welsh name at all, but a result of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s poor eyesight.

So, Barrie didn’t strictly invent the name Wendy – but he was responsible for its surge in popularity in the twentieth century. Wendy Cope, Wendy Craig, and Wendy Richard among others would doubtless have been called something else if it hadn’t been for Barrie’s play.

Something else Barrie was responsible for was the name for the Wendy house. The name originates in the small house that Peter Pan builds around Wendy Darling when she is shot by Tootles, one of the Lost Boys. The idea came from the washhouse outside Barrie’s own childhood home. As with Peter himself, the Wendy house had already appeared, under a different name, in that first novel The Little White Bird, in which fairies build a house around Mamie Mannering, Wendy’s prototype, to protect her from the cold. If Barrie hadn’t changed the name, children might now be playing in ‘Mamie houses’.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

3 Comments

  1. Fascinating, thank you

  2. Very insightful – didn’t Princess Margaret Rose make suggestions about the play to Barrie for which he gave her a small percentage of his royalty?

  3. Brian Burden

    Fasinating research. I think in practice “Wendy” and “Gwennie” are both used today as abbreviations of “Gwendolen”.

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