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palm-beach-sydney-1920s

The data on popular names are all in, but maybe none of the current Top 100 names interest you. Or perhaps you are dismayed at how much your favourite names went up in popularity last year. If so, why not look at the popular names of ninety years ago, to see if there are some gems from times gone by that are ready to shine again?

Agnes
Agnes of Rome was a 3rd century child martyr. According to tradition, she was a member of the Roman nobility, raised in a Christian family, and a very beautiful young girl. She is said to have been only twelve or thirteen when she died, and like Saint Catherine, is one of the patrons of young girls; the eve of her feast day was a time for girls to perform rituals to discover their future husbands. The name Agnes was very popular in the Middle Ages; one of its attractions was probably that in medieval English it was softened into Annis, so that it sounded as it was related to Anne. The name Agnes is from the Greek for “pure”, but because it sounds similar to the Latin for “lamb”, agnus, Saint Agnes is often depicted holding a lamb. Agnes was #28 for the 1900s, and by the 1920s had fallen to #77. It left the Top 100 in the 1930s, and hasn’t ranked since the 1940s, but is now getting some use again. This soft, elegant name has been chosen for their daughter by several celebrities, including Jennifer Connolly. It is the name of a little girl in the movie Despicable Me, and currently popular in Scandinavia. It feels as if Agnes is already making a comeback.

Beryl
Gemstone name; beryls are stones which in pure form are colourless, but usually tinted by impurities in a variety of shades. Green beryls are called emeralds, and light blue ones are aquamarines, but all colours of beryl have their own name. The word beryl is ultimately from Sanskrit, probably derived from the town of Belur in southern India. Beryl has been used as a first name since the 17th century, but only became popular during the 19th, along with other gemstone names. Historically, it has been used as a male name too, mostly in the United States, perhaps as a variant of the surname Berrill (an occupational name from the wool trade), and the Yiddish name Berel (pet form of Ber, “bear”). Beryl was #61 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1920s at #8. It left the Top 100 in the 1950s and hasn’t ranked since the 1960s. Beryl is the bossy cook in Downton Abbey, and the evil queen in the Sailor Moon cartoons. This would make a daring gemstone revival, and offers the nickname Berry.

Elva
Variant of the Scandinavian girl’s name Alva, or an Anglicised form of the Irish unisex name Ailbhe, pronounced like Alva, and one of the influences on the name Elvis. You could see Elva as a specifically feminine form of Elvis, and the Irish origin seems most likely in Australia. Elva was #160 for the 1900s, and peaked in the 1920s at #97, before falling steeply; it last ranked in the 1950s. Elva was a “trendy” name in its day, but its relative obscurity has saved it from seeming dated. I have seen several babies named Elva recently, and it doesn’t seem out of place amongst the Evas and Avas.

Gwendoline
Variant of the Welsh name Gwendolen, first used for a legendary queen of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. According to this legend, Gwendolen was the daughter of King Corineus of Cornwall. She defeated her husband after he repudiated her in favour of his mistress; he was killed in battle, and Gwendolen had the mistress drowned. She then took the throne as the first independent queen of the Britons, and ruled for fifteen peaceful years. Gwendolen appears in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and in the poems of William Blake, as a symbol of British sovereignty. Gwendolen has been translated as “white ring, white bow”, although it may have been an attempt to Latinise another Welsh name. Geoffrey re-used the name Gwendolen for the name of Merlin’s wife in his Life of Merlin. Gwendolen and Gwendoline were revived in the Victoria era as part of the fascination with Arthurian names, and names from British legend. Gwendoline was #68 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1920s at #35. It left the Top 100 in the 1940s, and hasn’t ranked since the 1950s. It still receives occasional use, and has an upper-class British feel to it, while giving Gwen and Winnie as nicknames.

Hilda
Originated as a short form of Germanic names with hild in them, meaning “battle”. Hilda of Whitby was a 7th century saint from Northumberland, and her name in Old English is Hild. Born into royalty, she was baptised as part of the mission by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the English to Christianity. Hilda became a nun, then founded a monastery at Whitby (it was in the Celtic style, where men and women lived separately, but worshipped together). Hilda is described as a woman of great intelligence and energy, a fine abbess and teacher, so wise that rulers came to her for advice, yet caring towards ordinary people. Hilda was #27 in the 1900s, and #71 by the 1920s; it left the Top 100 by the 1930s, and hasn’t ranked since the 1940s. Hilda is a popular name in Sweden, giving this name a sexy Scandinavian feel as well as a sturdy English one; it doesn’t seem radically different from Heidi, and is even slightly like Matilda. It would be an unusual choice, but by no means a strange one.

Kathleen
Anglicised form of Cáitlin, the Irish form of Catelin, the Old French form of Catherine. The Irish Cáitlin can be said kat-LEEN, so it’s just a step to Kathleen. This name has a very Irish association, for Kathleen Ni Houlihan is an emblem of Irish nationalism representing the country of Ireland. She is usually depicted as an old woman who has lost her home and her lands, needing young men willing to fight and die for her. Once she has been rejuvenated by their martyrdom, she appears young and beautiful, and proud as a queen. It combines myths of both paganism and Christianity, and Kathleen Ni Houlihan has appeared in folk songs and poems, and the literary works of William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, Sean O’Casey, and James Joyce, amongst others. The name Kathleen was #10 in the 1900s, peaked in the 1910s at #5, and was #11 by the 1920s. A long time favourite, it didn’t leave the Top 100 until the 1990s, but hasn’t ranked since the late 2000s. Despite being out of fashion, this name was popular for more than eighty years, and still seems fresh and wholesome, with a hint of Irish charm.

Mabel
Short form of Amabel, from the Latin name Amibilis, meaning “lovable”. There were both male and female saints named Amabilis, and the female one is often known as Saint Mable to prevent confusion. Mabel was a popular name in the Middle Ages, and is found in a range of variant spellings; it is thought that it was originally said MAB-ell rather than the current MAY-bel. Mabel became rare in England, but remained in use in Ireland, where it was used to Anglicise the name Maeve. It was revived in the 19th century when Charlotte M. Yonge used it in her best-selling romance, The Heir of Reclyffe, for a character with an Irish background. Mabel was #30 in the 1900s, and had fallen to #90 by the 1920s, leaving the Top 100 the following decade. Mabel left the charts in the 1950s, but returned in the late 2000s. This retro name has plenty of spunk, and although it isn’t popular yet, don’t be surprised if it is again some day.

Monica
Saint Monica was the mother of Augustine of Hippo. A devout Christian, it was her dearest wish for her pagan son to become one as well, and after seventeen years her prayers were answered when he was converted by Saint Ambrose. Of course Augustine went the whole hog and ended up a saint, and a doctor of the church as well. Saint Monica was rather neglected after her death, but her cult became popular during the Middle Ages. Monica was from Libya and her name a Berber one that was common at the time; it is derived from the Libyan god Mon, a form of Amon, one of the most important of the Egyptian gods. In the Middle Ages, the origins of her name being unknown, it was decided that it must come from monere, Latin for “to advise, to warn”. Although this neatly tied in with Saint Monica’s story, it was etymologically incorrect. Monica was #141 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1920s at #91; it had a minor peak in the 1990s at #127, coinciding with the sitcom Friends, which had the character of Monica Geller. Monica has never left the charts, but never been higher than the bottom of the Top 100, making it a genuine underused classic. It still sounds slightly exotic, and makes a pretty, sophisticated choice that’s never been common.

Peggy
Short form of Margaret, meaning “pearl”. It’s a variant of Meggy which has been in use since medieval times. Peggy first ranked in the 1910s at #189, and peaked in the 1920s at #63. It fell sharply, leaving the Top 100 by the following decade, and hasn’t ranked since the 1980s. Peggy is now staging a comeback, as it fits in perfectly with the trend for vintage and retro short forms. The ambitious career woman Peggy Olsen from Mad Men is a feminist icon, and this name has been chosen as a celebrity baby name by both MP Jacinta Allan, and media personality Chrissie Swan.

Una
Anglicised form of Úna, a medieval Irish name believed to come from the Old Irish for “lamb”. In Irish mythology, Úna was a fairy queen, wife of Finnbheara, the high king of the fairies. It is pronounced OO-na, and was sometimes Anglicised to Agnes, because of the lamb connection, as well as Winnie or Juno, based on similar sounds. Una is also a name created by Edmund Spenser for his epic poem, The Faerie Queene. In the allegory, Una represents the “True Church” (Protestantism), and defeats the representation of the “False Church” (Catholicism). Spenser seems to have based her name on the Latin for “one” (to reference unity and a single choice of faith); the name is said YOO-na. However, Spenser wrote his poem while living in Ireland, and it is hard not to wonder if he had been influenced by the Irish name. Una was #94 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1920s at #69, leaving the Top 100 the following decade. It hasn’t ranked since the 1940s, but this name is really quite beautiful, and with its clear simplicity, doesn’t seem odd next to Ava and Mia.

POLL RESULTS
The public’s favourite names were Mabel, Gwendoline and Agnes, and their least favourite were Monica, Hilda and Beryl.

(Picture shows women holidaying at Palm Beach in Sydney in the 1920s; photo from the State Library of New South Wales)

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