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These are names of babies born during World War II, and the first baby boomers, born in the years just after the war. If you are an older parent, your own mother might have been born in this decade, while young parents may see 1940s names as “grandma” names. For those wanting a name that’s ahead of the curve, there are rich pickings from this time period.
Coral is a gemstone made from the polished shells or exoskeletons of coral polyps – originally, and typically, Corallium rubrum, from the Mediterranean. Because this species has a pink or red colouring, the word coral also refers to a pinkish colour. The ancient Romans believed coral would protect children, and it was common for baby toys and teething rings to be made from coral, even in the 19th century. Coral jewellery has been worn since prehistoric times, although it was the Victorian era which made coral fashionable. Today, with greater awareness of the environmental impact of harvesting coral, many jewellers will no longer sell coral items, and consumers are urged to boycott jewellery made from coral. The name Coral was #194 in the 1900s, and joined the Top 100 in the 1930s. It peaked in the 1940s at #79, left the Top 100 the following decade, and was off the charts by the 1980s, perhaps partly due to growing environmental concerns. Leaving aside the gemstone, you could see this name as a way to celebrate our beautiful coral reefs, and marine environment.
In Greek mythology, Daphne was a naiad; a nymph of fresh water, and daughter of a river god. Acording to legend, she was so beautiful that the god Apollo pursued her. Just as he was about to catch her, she pleaded with her father to help her, and he turned her into a laurel tree – Daphne literally means “laurel”, and it’s also the scientific name for the plant. The laurel became sacred to Apollo, and wreaths of laurel were traditionally given to those who had achieved victory. The name Daphne has been use since the 18th century, when classical names became fashionable, but only became common in the 19th, because of the interest in botanical names. Daphne was #82 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1920s at #22. It was #76 in the 1940s, left the Top 100 the following decade, and was off the charts by the 1970s. Recently it been in the charts again, and is around the 300s. Charming retro Daphne makes a distinguished choice, not a daffy one.
Feminine form of Francis, often given in tribute to St Francis of Assisi, although St Frances of Rome provides a medieval female saintly namesake. The name was commonly used by the British aristocracy, with examples such as Frances Cobham, a close friend of Elizabeth I, and Frances Grey, the mother of queen-for-nine-days Lady Jane Grey. The great Restoration beauty Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, drove King Charles II batty with desire, but she refused to become his mistress. Her lovely face was used as the model for Brittania on coins, medals, and statues, and can still be seen today. In common use since the 16th century at least, Frances is a classic name which has never disappeared from the charts. It was #52 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1940s at #47, leaving the Top 100 in the 1970s. It sank into obscurity in the late 2000s, but had a boost at the start of this decade which saw it move into the 500s, and is now around the 200s. More solid than Francesca, Frances is a quiet achiever which gets royal glamour from being the middle name of Diana, Princess of Wales, and offers the cool nickname Frankie.
From the Greek Eirene, meaning “peace”. In Greek mythology, Eirene was the personification of peace, depicted as a beautiful young girl carrying symbols of plenty. Another mythological Eirene was a daughter of Poisedon. The name was in use in ancient Greece, and one Eirene was a famous artist. There are a number of saints named Irene, with Irene of Thessalonica martyred with her sisters Love and Purity, so personifications of theological virtues. Originally more popular in eastern Christianity, it was the name of a Byzantine Empress, and has been used by European royalty. The name was originally pronounced e-REE-nee, but is usually said IE-reen now. Irene is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #19 in the 1900s, and peaked the following decade at #17. It was #56 in the 1940s, and left the Top 100 in the 1960s. It reached its lowest point in the late 2000s at #684, and since then become more popular, perhaps because it’s been used for several fictional characters in the past few years. Currently it’s around the 400s. This is a hip, underused classic with a lovely meaning.
In the New Testament, Lois was the pious grandmother of Saint Timothy. It’s not known what the name means: it may be from the Greek meaning “more desirable, more agreeable”, and understood as “the most beautiful, the best”. However, as Lois was Jewish, it could be an attempt to Hellenise a Hebrew name. Lois is also a male name – an Occitan and Galician form of Louis. The female name Lois has been in use since the 16th century, and was used by Puritan families. Lois Lane, Superman’s love interest, has given the name publicity for many decades, but more recently it has become a “mum name” on TV, with Lois Wilkerson from Malcolm in the Middle, and Lois Griffin from Family Guy. Lois joined the charts in the 1910s, debuting at #181. It joined the Top 100 in the 1930s, when it peaked at #84, and was #93 in the 1940s. It left the Top 100 the following decade, and was off the charts by the 1970s. Soft sounding Lois would make an interesting alternative to popular names such as Eloise.
German name combining Maria/Marie and Magdalene, so it commemorates Mary Magdalene from the New Testament, the chief female disciple of Jesus Christ. The German pronunciation is mahr-LE-nuh, but it is often said MAHR-leen in English. The name became well known in the English speaking world because of iconic German-American film star Marlene Dietrich, whose real name was Marie Magdalene. The name Marlene rocketed into the Top 100 from nowhere in the 1930s when Dietrich became a star after appearing as the uberdesirable Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s movie The Blue Angel. It both debuted and peaked at #63 in the 1930s. The name Marlene was #68 in the 1940s, when Dietrich did valuable war work, such as performing for the troops and raising war bonds. By the 1950s, when Dietrich became a cabaret star, the name Marlene had left the Top 100. It left the the charts in the 1980s, when Dietrich’s career was over. Despite being a dated name which spiked in popularity only briefly, Marlene still seems glamorous and sexy, fitting in with modern names such as Marley and Elena.
Created by Sir Philip Sidney for his 16th century epic, the Arcadia; in the story, Pamela is an attractive main character. It is usually thought that Sidney based the name on the Greek for “all sweetness”. The name was given publicity by Samuel Richardson’s best-selling 18th century novel, Pamela, where a lovely teenaged maidservant is threatened with rape by her employer, but she successfully resists him, and is rewarded for her virtue by being allowed to marry him. Not only are there so many things wrong with that sentence, it was apparently based on a true story. Pamela was originally pronounced pa-MEE-luh, but PAM-eh-luh is more usual now. Pamela has been used since the 17th century, and an early namesake was Lady Edward Fitzgerald; although her real name was Stephanie, she named her eldest daughter Pamela. Pamela joined the charts in the 1910s, debuting at #310, and peaked in the 1940s at #9. It left the Top 100 in the 1970s, and hasn’t been on the charts since the early 2000s. This is an elegant literary name which is dated, but still seems very usable.
In the Old Testament, Ruth was the loyal widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi, who famously offered to follow her mother-in-law wherever she went. Naomi married Ruth to one of her relatives, who called Ruth a “noble character”; she is one of the nicest people in the Bible, blessed with a loving spirit. Her name comes from the Hebrew ru’at, meaning “friend, companion” – it seems chosen for the story, as she was such a good friend to Naomi. Ruth is also an English word meaning “mercy, compassion” – it’s one of those words which only seems to be used in its negative form, as we often describe people as ruthless, but rarely ruthful. Ruth has been in common use throughout the modern era, and is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #66 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1920s at #41. It was #58 in the 1940s, and left the Top 100 in the 1970s. It’s currently around the 500s. An underused classic with two lovely meanings and a sweet namesake, this is a great name. After all, you can’t spell truth without Ruth!
Popularised by Marie Corelli’s 1887 novel Thelma; in Corelli’s romance, Thelma is an enchantingly beautiful, snow-pure Norwegian princess who marries an English nobleman. The name Thelma had been in use since at least the 18th century, but the meaning is not known. One theory is that it is based on the Greek word thelema, meaning “will”, but there is no evidence to support it. It may be a variant of Selma, since Selma is a common name in Scandinavia even today, and Thelma was used in Norway before the novel was published. The name Thelma was also used in Spanish-speaking countries before Corelli’s novel, and Anselma (the long form of Selma) is a Spanish name. Thelma was #18 in the 1900s and peaked the following decade at #9. It was #96 in the 1940s, left the Top 100 by the following decade, and was off the charts by the 1970s. With the name Selma now receiving a boost from the film, could its clunky sister Thelma be in with a chance?
English form of the French name Valérie, from the Latin name Valeria, the feminine form of Valerius, meaning “strong, healthy”. It comes from the same source as the name Valentine. St Valerie was a legendary French saint who was martyred by beheading, then went for a walk carrying her head. This was a popular thing for French saints to do in medieval legends, so the name Valerie got quite a boost. Valerie is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #180 in the 1900s, and joined the Top 100 the following decade. Peaking in the 1930s at #12, it was #38 in the 1940s. It left the Top 100 in the 1960s, and has remained in uncommon use. It had a small boost at the start of this decade, when it was in the 400s. Valerie is a classic with a rather luscious feel to it. It makes a great middle name too.
People’s favourite names were Daphne, Coral and Frances, and their least favourite were Marlene, Thelma, and Pamela.
(Picture shows members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force working on a RAAF plane; photo from the Australian War Memorial)
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I really like Frances and Lois. I know two little Frances (neither go by Frankie).
Lois has all the ingredients for a comeback – yet it just hasn’t made its presence. My friend used it as a middle for her daughter – Billie Lois – sweet tom-boy spunk.
I love Ruth Park, ‘Dear Hearts and Gentle People’ is one of my absolute favourites.
Billie Lois is wonderful – and I’ve noticed that often before a name makes a comeback or becomes popular, parents will start using it as a middle name first. I see it in birth notices all the time, as certain names switch from “middle name daring” into “first name mainstream”.
It’s not surprising given their popularity in the early decades of last century, but, er, you’ve covered both my grandmothers’ names here 🙂
Haha! I covered one aunt, a friend’s mother, two neighbours and two colleagues, without really meaning to. I also have friends named Frances and Marlene, but they’re not from this era – they’re around my age.
Love Ruth, and after reading Ruth Park’s Autobiography ‘A fence around the cuckoo’ even more so. What an inspiring woman and great namesake. Also, I much prefer Marlene and Irene pronounced ee-na instead of een at the end, definitely more classy.
Ruth Park is an amazing namesake, and it’s a lovely name.