The Baby Name Fifinella

Women’s History Month is almost over, so let me squeeze in a post about Fifinella, a rare-but-real name with ties not only to the pioneering female aviators of WWII, but also to Walt Disney, Roald Dahl, Tchaikovsky, and a champion British racehorse.

Fifinella began as a children’s Christmas play. It was co-written by Englishmen Barry Jackson and Basil Dean, with music by Norman Hayes. Fifinella was first performed at the Liverpool Repertory Theatre in December of 1912.

fifinella - the play
From “The Stage” Year Book, 1913

The play — sometimes called “Fluffy Nellie” — “included 14 scenes and a harlequinade.” It was also adapted into the book Fifinella, a fairy frolic (1912) by Basil Dean’s then-wife Esther Van Gruisen.

The next year, an English thoroughbred horse was born to dam Silver Fowl and sire Polymelus. The chestnut filly, owned by newspaper proprietor Sir Edward Hulton, was named Fifinella.

fifinella in 1916
Fifinella in 1916

Fifinella went on become the last horse to win both the Derby and the Oaks in a single year, 1916.

That’s the same year English author and former Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot Roald Dahl was born — reason enough, apparently, for him to want to use Fifinella in his very first children’s book The Gremlins (1943), “a story drawing on RAF folklore which held that little creatures were responsible for the various mechanical failures on aeroplanes.”

The gremlins are convinced by a pilot named Gus to make peace with the RAF and join forces with the British to combat a more sinister villain; Hitler and the Nazis. The gremlins are then re-trained by the RAF to repair British aircraft instead of destroy them.

In the book, “fifinella” isn’t a name but a noun referring to a female gremlin. (Baby gremlins are called “widgets.”)

The book was put out by Walt Disney Productions and Random House. Walt Disney had wanted to make the book into a movie, but the movie never happened.

The gremlins “did live on in the form of military insignias,” though.

Walt Disney himself granted at least 30 military units permission to use gremlins as mascots/insignias during WWII, and even “assigned several artists to create these one-of-a-kind designs on a full-time basis.”

Units with gremlin mascots included the 17th Weather Squadron of San Francisco, the Royal Netherlands Military Flying School, and the Royal Canadian Air Force ‘Sky Sweepers.’

But the most famous gremlin mascot, Fifinella, belonged to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a paramilitary unit of 1,000+ women who flew non-combat flights in order to free male pilots for combat service.

Fifinella

(She had been an unofficial mascot of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), which in August of 1943 merged with another group of female pilots to become the WASPs, even before permission was granted.)

The WASPs put Fifinella’s image on everything from patches to letterheads to matchbook covers. The Fifinella mascot even made an appearance in a mid-1943 LIFE article about the WASPs.

Member of Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) wears Fifinella patch on blouse, 1943
© LIFE

After the WASPs were disbanded in late 1944, ex-WASPs created the Order of Fifinella, a group that was both social (e.g., organizing reunions) and political (e.g., working to gain recognition as veterans).

Finally, one last Fifinella reference: In late 1945, Austrian tenor Richard Tauber recorded an English version of “Pimpinella – Florentine Song” (1878) by Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. One of the many lyrical changes he made was replacing the name Pimpinella with the name Fifinella. (Here’s Richard Tauber singing Fifinella.)

So the name Fifinella has been around for at least a century. It’s been associated with theater, literature, sport, war, feminism and music. Has it ever been used as the name of a human being?

Yes, but rarely. I’ve only found a handful of Fifinellas, and all of them were born outside the United States:

  • Fifinella Downes (later Clarke), Australia
  • Fifinella “Fif” Beatrice Evans, d. 2007, England
  • Fifinella Flavell, b. 1923, England
  • Fifinella Hill (later Gratwick), Australia
  • Fifinella Lewis, b. 1914, Ireland
  • Fifinella Mallard (later Newson), 1901-1969, England
  • Fifinella Charlotte Agatha Nelson, d. 1947, Australia
  • Fifinella Patricia Russell (later Ceret), b. 1927, Ireland
  • Fifinella Silcox (later Mccluskey), b. 1948, England

So it’s definitely an unusual name. It’s also quite whimsical, and it has a ton of nickname potential (Fifi, Fina, Nell, Nella, Nellie). Do you like it? Would you ever consider using Fifinella as a baby name?

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6 thoughts on “The Baby Name Fifinella

  1. I think I would pass on using this name. As an aside, one of the actors listed was Percivel Madgewick. Imagine going through life with that burden!

  2. Wow! What a story!

    I would definitely consider Fifinella for a name because it’s both unique and has that ‘ella’ ending that I love so much (and so does everyone else in my generation, unfortunately). However, I doubt it would make it through the vetting process. “Fifi” is too much like a cute puppy’s name… I suspect I would get some pushback. :)

  3. @Diana – I love the combo “Percival Madgewick” — too fusty for a modern American kid perhaps, but for a turn-of-the-century British actor? Perfect. :)

    @Kristy – I think Fifinella might be too twee/precious for a lot of parents these days, precisely because of the “Fifi.”

  4. @Nancy – Agreed. Unique names can be a standout in the entertainment industry. The list of actors also reminds me of those early days of my youth when adults were referred to with suffixes (Mr., Mrs., Miss) and children as Miss or Master. Only family or close friends referred to others by their first name. Maybe an article from you about the history and use of suffixes would be interesting to readers. Where did these titles come from? Here is a short history I found. http://www.newstatesman.com/cultural-capital/2014/09/mistress-miss-mrs-or-ms-untangling-shifting-history-women-s-titles
    Good stuff!

  5. Fifinella is like Arabella on steriods! So feminine she feels like a sterotype instead of a person.

    Fascinating article, Nancy!

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