Mystery Monday: Elwanda

Ready for another baby name mystery? I present to you Elwanda, which saw a sharp increase in usage in 1921:

  • 1923: 54 baby girls named Elwanda
    • 61% in 4 states: 14 TX, 7 WV, 6 AR, 6 KY
  • 1922: 85 baby girls named Elwanda [rank: 791st]
    • 66% in 5 states: 17 TX, 15 AR, 8 MO, 8 TN, 6 OK
  • 1921: 98 baby girls named Elwanda [rank: 739th]
    • 72% in 6 states: 25 TX, 18 AR, 9 OK, 7 MO, 6 KY, 6 WV
  • 1920: 5 baby girls named Elwanda [debut]
  • 1919: unlisted

So far, I can’t explain that spike (which was the steepest rise overall that year). But I can tell you that most of that 1921 usage took place in an interesting grouping of Southern states:

On the one hand, higher usage of Wanda-based names in the early 1920s makes sense because that’s when name Wanda itself was very trendy. (Wanda entered the top 100 in 1922.)

On the other hand, when you compare the usage of Elwanda to that of the other Wanda-variants (like Wandalee and Lawanda), it’s clear that something else must have happened in Elwanda’s case for the rise to be that steep — not to mention so regionally specific.

Any ideas about what influenced Elwanda?

P.S. Other names that saw movement during the 1920s were influenced by things like movies, music (but not radio), literature (particularly serialized stories), and news stories.

Prytania – Possible Baby Name?

My husband and I found ourselves in New Orleans again recently, but only for a matter of hours, so we weren’t able to have as many adventures as last time. While taking a Lyft through an uptown area of the city, though, I did spot an intriguing street name: Prytania.

Had any NOLA residents ever been named Prytania? I did some research, but couldn’t find any. In fact, the only Prytania I managed to track down was a 12-year-old Texas girl named Prytania Chambers on the 1880 U.S. Census:

Prytania isn’t even as common as Atchafalaya!

The street itself has an interesting name-story, though.

Not long after the sale of New Orleans to the United States in 1803 — part of the massive Louisiana Purchase* — some residents of the city devised an ambitious plan to construct a Roman-style collesée (colisseum) that would host public games and assemblies. It was never built, but the name lives in “Coliseum Street” and ” Coliseum Square.”

Similarly, these residents also wanted to establish a prytanée — a sort of people’s university — based on like-named schools in France. The French schools had been named after the ancient Greek prytaneum, or town hall. The university was going to be located on what was originally called the Rue des Prytanées. But, like the coliseum, the school was never built, and the street name eventually evoled to become “Prytania.”

The first syllable of prytaneum is based on the ancient Greek word pur, meaning “fire.” Ancient Greek prytaneums were dedicated to Hestia, goddess of the hearth, and within each one a perpetual fire was kept burning.

Coliseum and Prytania Streets run parallel to one another, and, in the area where the collesée and the prytanée were going to be built, the cross streets are named after the nine Greek muses: Urania, Thalia, Euterpe, Calliope, Clio, Erato, Melpomene, Terpsichore, and Polyhymnia. (Here’s a WGNO video about the pronunciations of several of these muse/road names.)

What are your thoughts on “Prytania” as a potential baby name? Usable?

Sources:

*Also a baby name! Here’s more about Louisiana Purchase O’Leary.

More on Maha & Najla

A few months ago, in the Visionary Baby Names for 2020 post, I mentioned the names Maha, Najla, and Butta-kuz. Each of these names refers to the eyes of a specific animal, yet most books and websites define them only in the extended sense: “beautiful eyes,” or “wide eyes.”

This is frustrating if you’re aiming to find more detailed definitions — something I learned while writing that post, and something memoirist Najla Said learned the day she met a woman named Maha.

In Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family (2013), Najla recounted that Maha (of Syrian descent) asked her what “Najla” meant. She replied:

“It means ‘big black eyes like a cow,'” I told her with the “I am so proud of my special name, isn’t it exotic and beautiful” smile I had now perfected.

Then Maha surprised Najla by claiming that her name meant the exact same thing.

Najla, somewhat upset by this, asked her mother about the unlikely coincidence. Her mother confirmed that “[the names] are similar. But they are different.”

So Najla — like the rest of us — turned to the internet. There, she found a site about Arabic baby names.

I looked up “Najla” and I looked up “Maha” and sure enough, I found them to mean essentially the same thing. But what is weirder is that […] there were also about twenty other names that mean “big black eyes like a…something” — “big black eyes like a cow,” “big black eyes like a donkey,” “big black eyes like a horse,” “big black eyes like a monkey”…

Finally she consulted her younger brother Wadie, who’d taken Arabic in college. He told her that “Maha” meant “‘big black eyes like an ibex…or rather, an oryx, I believe?”

…I’ve seen conflicting information about both Najla and Maja, so I can’t quite tell if either one refers specifically to a wild cow, or to an oryx, or to something else entirely.

I am very curious about those other animal eye-inspired Arabic names Najla mentioned, though. So far, I haven’t found any of them. If you know of one, please leave a comment!

P.S. Najla is the daughter of scholar Edward Said.

Mystery Monday: Versie

According to the SSA data, one of the fastest rising baby names of 1894 was the girl name Versie. The SSDI similarly indicates a spike in Versies in 1894:

Versie (SSA)Versie (SSDI)
189616 baby girls16 baby girls
18957 baby girls14 baby girls
189421 baby girls21 baby girls
18935 baby girls11 baby girls
1892unlisted7 baby girls

What caused it?

I’m not sure! I’ve tried searching for an explanation, but so far I’ve come up short.

The 1894 spike isn’t related to the usage of the similar name Versa (which disappeared from the data that year, in fact). And I haven’t found any news stories or pop culture from that era that would have spotlighted the name.

All I can tell you is that, according to the records I’ve seen, usage was primarily in the South (in states like Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, and Tennessee). Also, usage was primarily in white families, though I did find Versies in African-American families as well.

Any ideas on this one?

P.S. Incidentally, versie means “version” in Dutch.

Nellybelle – Possible Baby Name?

While researching various pop culture baby names from the 1950s, I happened to come across Nellybelle, the name of a non-human character on the The Roy Rogers Show (1951-1957).

Nellybelle was a jeep with a mind of her own. When she wasn’t driving herself around, she was being driven by Roy’s sidekick, Pat Brady. According to the New York Times, Pat made the name Nellybelle a “household word” with his catchphrase, “Whoa, Nellybelle!”

All that exposure inspired more than a few people to call their cars Nellybelle, but it didn’t have the same influence on baby names: the name-combo has never been bestowed often enough to register in the U.S. baby name data (which excludes names used fewer than 5 times per year).

That said, it has certainly seen usage as a first-middle set. Many dozens of females born in the U.S. in the 1800s and early 1900s were named “Nellie Belle” and “Nellie Bell,” according to records.

What are your thoughts on the name Nellybelle? Would you use it for a modern-day baby?

Source: Pat Brady, Film Cowboy, Dies; Roy Rogers’s Sidekick Was 57