Has some grumpy person ever called you a “Pollyanna”? That person may have meant it pejoratively, but take it as a compliment! (And tell that grump to go take a nap.) Because for over a century now the name has been a vocabulary word with a seriously pleasant meaning: “an excessively cheerful or optimistic person.”
So how did the compound name come to have that meaning? With the help of a popular book from the 1910s.
Pollyanna (1913) by Eleanor H. Porter was the first in a series of books about Pollyanna Whittier, one of the famous optimistic orphans of literature. (Think Anne of Green Gables, or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.) But Pollyanna Whittier, “a girl who preaches the gospel of Gladness,” was the most optimistic of them all:
After her father’s death, the orphan moves to Beldingsville, Vt. In the next hundred pages, this juvenile social worker persuades the whole town to play the Glad Game. Cranky Mr. Pendleton, the bedridden Mrs. Snow, the dispirited Reverend Ford, the forlorn Dr. Chilton, a loose woman contemplating divorce and (finally) her sclerotic aunt succumb to the power of positive thinking and begin to hunt for and find things to be glad about.
The original Pollyanna book was the 8th-bestselling book of 1913 and the 2nd-bestselling book of 1914. It was so successful that Porter turned it into a series, starting with the sequel Pollyanna Grows Up (1915), which ranked 4th on the bestseller list in 1915.
As one critic explained in 1947, “The publication of the story in 1913 was only less influential than the World War. White Mountain cabins, Colorado teahouses, Texas babies, Indiana apartment houses, and a brand of milk were immediately named for the new character.”
The critic mentioned Texas specifically because a Texas baby named for the character (Pollyanna Houston, born in Waco) was in the news in 1915. But babies elsewhere got the name as well. Here’s the SSA data for the usage of Pollyanna during the 1910s:
- 1919: 15 baby girls named Pollyanna
- 1918: 13 baby girls named Pollyanna
- 1917: 21 baby girls named Pollyanna
- 1916: 20 baby girls named Pollyanna
- 1915: 12 baby girls named Pollyanna
- 1914: 6 baby girls named Pollyanna [debut]
- 1913: unlisted
- 1912: unlisted
And here’s the SSDI data for the same window of time:
- 1919: 10 Pollyannas
- 1918: 9 Pollyannas
- 1917: 15 Pollyannas
- 1916: 18 Pollyannas
- 1915: 11 Pollyannas
- 1914: 3 Pollyannas
- 1913: 6 Pollyannas
- 1912: 2 Pollyannas
The greatest usage of the name came in the 1960s, with the Disney movie adaptation of the book…but we’ll talk more about that (and the name Hayley!) tomorrow.
Until then, why not leave me a comment with your thoughts on the baby name Pollyanna? Do you think it’s usable these days?
- “Books.” Gazette Globe [Kansas City, Kansas] 18 Feb. 1915: 4.
- Pollyanna, Ex-Bubblehead (NYT)
- Pollyanna – Oxford Dictionaries
- Publishers Weekly List of Bestselling Novels, U.S., 1910s