Dot Wordsworth


Mind Your Language on the curious history of names

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‘What are you laughing at?’ asked my husband in an accusing tone on Monday morning last week as he unloaded supermarket bottles from a carrier bag into the drinks cabinet near his armchair.

The answer was, to my surprise, Woman’s Hour, on which Jane Garvey had entertainingly been discussing names – ‘first names’, mostly, which we used to call Christian names, just as we used to talk of Red Indians. No longer.

Jane Garvey doesn’t, it transpired, much care for Jane, which is popularly associated with plain. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for Plain Jane is from Compton Mackenzie’s novel Carnival (1912), in which the mother of little Jenny Raeburn defends her newborn daughter from pious great aunts, saying: ‘She sha’n’t be a Plain Jane and No Nonsense, with her hair screwed back like a broom, but she shall be Jenny, sweet and handsome, with lips made for kissing and eyes that will sparkle and shine like six o’clock of a summer morning.’

There were precedents for plain Janes. Jane Eyre saw herself in the mirror as: ‘Portrait of a governess disconnected, poor, and plain.’ Mr Rochester is of the same mind: ‘You — poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are — I entreat to accept me as a husband.’ But then, the author makes plainness and plain speaking things to be proud of.

‘Jenny kissed me when we met / Jumping from the chair she sat in,’ wrote Leigh Hunt, making the best of Jane Welsh Carlyle, when she was about 37. At bottom Jane and Jenny are the same name, the same too as Jean and Joan and Janet. All are feminine versions of John. They bear very different characters, though.

Jenny now is also regarded as a hypocoristic or nursery version of Jennifer. But until the 20th century Jennifer was a rare and curious name from Cornwall, a regional version of the name of Arthur’s queen, most familiar in its Frenchified form of Guinevere. Another version of Guinevere from the Middle Ages is Gaynor, which now sounds far less upper--class.

I was surprised that Jane Garvey thought Jane no very classy name either. It sounds perfectly respectable to me. But then I share a name with Dot Cotton of EastEnders.