Independent baby name blog & directory, est. 2006.
How popular is the baby name Norman in the United States right now? How popular was it historically? Find out using the graph below! Plus, see baby names similar to Norman and check out all the blog posts that mention the name Norman.
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In late 1935, photographs of 21-year-old Mardee Hoff started appearing in the newspapers. She’d been selected from a pool of 2,600 models by the American Society of Illustrators as the girl with “the most beautiful figure in America.”
The papers said she would compete against Rosemary Andree, “Britain’s Venus,” for the international title in 1936. Many published side-by-side photos of the two women. I can’t find any record of this event actually happening, though.
But one thing that did happen in 1936 was the debut of Mardee on the SSA’s baby name list:
The usage spike in 1941, plus the debut Mardi in 1941, were likely influenced by Mardee Hoff’s appearance on a late 1940 LIFE cover. She’s identified by name inside the magazine: “Mardee Hoff, photographed in one of the new torso-length cardigans on this week’s cover, has for the past three years been one of the most popular models with both photographers and illustrators.”
Interestingly, Mardee Hoff also posed for Norman Rockwell in the 1930s. She was the model for “Hollywood Starlet,” which appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in March of 1936.
(And here’s another model name, Twiggy, that debuted about three decades later…)
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.
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 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 gremilns 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), an paramilitary unit of 1,000+ women who flew non-combat flights in order to free male pilots for combat service.
(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.
After the WASPs were disbanded in late 1944, ex-WASPs created the Order of Fifinella, an 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?
The movie-inspired baby name Rawnie from a few weeks ago reminded me of the baby names Roni and Roni Sue, neither of which I’ve posted about yet. So today let’s check out Roni, which saw a spike in usage in the mid-1950s:
1958: 89 baby girls named Roni
1957: 94 baby girls named Roni
1956: 134 baby girls named Roni (ranked 864th)
1955: 295 baby girls named Roni (ranked 536th)
1954: 70 baby girls named Roni
1953: 49 baby girls named Roni
What was the cause?
A feel-good news story about a 17-month-old Greek orphan named Roni Marie. She was being adopted by childless Texas couple Norman and Helen Donahoe in very early 1955. (This is how the story managed to slightly increase the usage of Roni among 1954 babies.)
Norman, a Navy lieutenant, “took his Christmas leave to hitchhike to Athens for the brown eyed foundling.” He spent 3 weeks in Greece finalizing the adoption.
Once Roni was his, the pair set off on the return trip, which lasted from January 8 to January 13.
“Roni Marie’s trip to the U.S. became somewhat of a diaper derby for Lieutenant Donahoe…he was rapidly running out of disposable diapers and he worried about the dwindling supply. But he was able to add to his diaper stock during a stopover in Morocco.”
LIFE Magazine, a little late to the party, printed a short blurb about the Donahoes on January 24.
So how do you feel about the name Roni? Do you like it any more or less than Rawnie?
P.S. A follow-up article published in 1961 revealed that Norman and Helen had gone on to adopt one more Greek orphan, Steven, and then have two biological children, Eloni [sic?] and Donald. (I’m assuming Eloni’s name was really Eleni, which is a Greek form of Helen.)
The article also mentioned that, over the years, some names have been outpaced by their diminutive forms — Alfred by Alfie, Frederick by Freddie, Archibald by Archie, Charles by Charlie, Alexandra by Lexi, Sophia by Sophie, Eleanor by Ellie, and so forth.
*Blodwen is Welsh for “white flowers.” The Breton form is Bleuzen, in case you were wondering.
Another celebrity has gone with a Hawaiian baby name. Helen Hunt has a daughter named Makena Lei, Lisa Bonet has a son named Nakoa-Wolf Manakauapo Namakaeha, and now Evangeline Lilly has a son named Kahekili.
This is old news, actually. Lilly’s baby (with boyfriend Norman Kali) was born in mid-2011, and the name was revealed later that year. Kahekili means “the thunder” in Hawaiian: ka is “the” and hekili is “thunder.”
But apparently Lilly has only recently come out with the full story behind Kahekili’s name:
My son was born outside in Hawaii in the middle of a thunder and lightning storm that was so insane that we had an island-wide power outage… We were woken out of our sleep by the thunder, it was so intense, and in Hawaii they call that mana, which is like your essence or your spirit… so we had to name him after his mana.
She’d previously mentioned that the baby was born “outside in a thunderstorm.” Also, that the name wasn’t chosen right away: “My baby did not have a name for a month. It took me a month to name my child.”
A handful of other baby boys have been named Kahekili lately. In fact, over past few years, the name has popped up on the national list three times and on the Hawaii list twice:
2012: 6 baby boys named Kahekili nationally
2010: 6 baby boys named Kahekili nationally, 5 in Hawaii
2009: 5 baby boys named Kahekili nationally [debut], all 5 in Hawaii [debut]
I wonder how many of these babies were born during thunderstorms.