How popular is the baby name Walt in the United States right now? How popular was it historically? Find out using the graph below! Plus, see baby names similar to Walt and check out all the blog posts that mention the name Walt.
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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 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.
(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, 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?
When I first noticed the name Normandie on the SSA’s 1944 baby name list, I thought the name must have something to do with the Battle of Normandy.
But two things weren’t right. First, the English version of the word, Normandy, was nowhere to be found that year. Second, as I worked backwards through the lists, I noticed more and more baby girls named “Normandie.” So, my Battle of Normandy theory was blown.
But that’s fine, because the theory I have now is a lot more interesting.
The name Normandie debuted on the list in 1935, and appeared on the list a total of 5 times:
1944: 9 baby girls named Normandie
1943: 9 baby girls named Normandie
1942: 14 baby girls named Normandie
1937: 11 baby girls named Normandie
1935: 7 baby girls named Normandie [debut]
Where did it come from?
My guess is the French ocean liner the SS Normandie, which was the largest and most luxurious passenger ship of the late 1930s.
Unlike other ships of that era, the Normandie was built to cater to the wealthy. Most of the opulent Art Deco interior was specifically designated for first-class use:
Here was a ship where the first class dining room accommodated 700 guests sitting under 12 pillars of illuminated Lalique glass and 38 matching columns along the walls. There was a winter garden filled with exotic flora and fauna, a swimming pool, and a theatre.
First class suites had pianos, multiple bedrooms and their own decks.
In mid-1935, the Normandie crossed the Atlantic on its maiden voyage. One of the passengers was Madame Lebrun, wife of French president Albert François Lebrun.
Tens of thousands of people saw the ship off from Le Havre, France, and tens of thousands more lined the docks at New York Harbor to watch it arrive just 4 days and 3 hours later — a new westbound speed record.
All of [the Normandie-related] events, the mere presence of Normandie in New York and the atmosphere that she created fueled the media and popular obsession with the ocean liner and the famous passengers she had on board.
Two years later, in 1937, the Normandie broke the westbound speed record again, this time completing the trip in just under 4 days.
The ship ended up crossing the Atlantic a total of 139 times, ferrying notable passengers like Marlene Dietrich, Walt Disney, Ernest Hemingway, Cary Grant and Bob Hope back and forth between Europe and the U.S.
But the ship’s career was cut short when, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, U.S. authorities seized control of the Normandie while it was docked at Pier 88 on the Hudson River. While being converted into a troopship in early 1942, it caught fire and capsized onto its port side. The Normandie was righted in 1943, but was ultimately scrapped in 1946.
If so, you may already know that the animator who first sketched Mickey Mouse for Walt Disney had the unusual name “Ub Iwerks.”
Where did it come from?
Ub was born Ubbe Ert Iwwerks in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1901. His father, Eert Ubbe Iwwerks, had emigrated from East Frisia (in northwest Germany) in 1869.
He later cut Ubbe down to Ubb, then to Ub, and shortened Iwwerks to Iwerks.
How did Ub pronounce his name? Good question. According to a nephew, “like the letters U and B.” According to a granddaughter, though, “the correct pronunciation rhymed with hub.”
Walt Disney mentioned Ub’s unusual name in a letter to his wife, Lilly, written in 1929: “Everyone praises Ubb’s artwork and jokes at his funny name. The oddness of Ubb’s name is an asset — it makes people look twice when they see it.”