For a number of generations, the name Oscar has been particularly popular in Scandinavia — that is, the countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
The simplest answer is King Oscar I of Sweden. But the more accurate answer, in my opinion, is Napoleon.
The story starts with Scottish poet James Macpherson, who, during the early 1760s, published a series of epic poems. He claimed that they were his translations of 3rd-century Scottish Gaelic poems by a bard named Ossian, but many of his contemporaries were suspicious of this claim. (The current consensus is that they were composed by Macpherson himself and based largely upon Irish mythology. The name Ossian, for instance, is Macpherson’s interpretation of the Irish name Oisín.)
Despite the controversy, Macpherson’s poems became extremely popular throughout Europe. And they were very influential: “[I]t is arguable that these poems constitute one of the canonical Ur-texts of the romantic nationalisms which spread across the Continent” over the century that followed.
French military officer Napoleon was among the prominent admirers of Macpherson’s poems.
Incidentally, Napoleon had tried his hand at writing. One of his unpublished novels, Clisson et Eugénie, written in 1795, was based in part upon his relationship with then-fiancée Désirée Clary.
He ended up marrying a different woman, Josephine, in March of 1796.
And former fiancée Désirée went on to marry a different French military officer, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, in August of 1798.
Désirée gave birth to the couple’s only child, a boy, in July of 1799. The baby was named Joseph François Oscar Bernadotte. “Joseph” was in honor of the baby’s uncle, Joseph Bonaparte — Napoléon’s brother, who happened to be married to Desiree’s sister. “François,” I presume, was a patriotic nod to France. And “Oscar”? Included at the suggestion of godfather Napoleon, the name Oscar referred to a heroic character from Macpherson’s poems. (Oscar was Ossian’s son.)
Later the same year, Napoleon became First Consul of the French Republic.
In May of 1804, he declared himself Emperor. Soon after, he promoted Bernadotte (and seventeen other generals) to the rank of Marshal of the Empire.
Bernadotte continued fighting in the Napoleonic Wars throughout the rest of the decade.
Then, in August of 1810, Bernadotte was unexpectedly invited to become heir-presumptive to the Swedish throne. The king of Sweden at the time, Carl XIII, was elderly and had no male heir.
(Why would the Swedes ask a Frenchman with no royal blood to rule their country? For several reasons, including: he had strong ties to Napoleon, he had proven military and administrative abilities, and, not least of all, “he already had a son to ensure the succession.”)
Bernadotte accepted. Several months later, he moved his family to Sweden. converted to Lutheranism, and was legally adopted by the king — thus becoming the country’s crown prince.
He became the de facto head of state right away, playing a key part in the formation of the Sixth Coalition (which fought against Napoleon from 1813 to mid-1814) and gaining control of Norway to create the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway (later in 1814).
In 1818, Carl XIII passed away. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte — under the regnal name Carl XIV Johan — ascended to become King of Sweden and Norway. His wife Désirée became queen, and their son Oscar became crown prince.
More than a quarter century later, in 1844, Carl XIV Johan (Bernadotte) himself passed away, and Oscar succeeded his father as King of Sweden and Norway.
This explains the popularity of the name Oscar in the countries of Sweden and Norway, but what about Denmark? Usage started to increase there in 1848, when King Oscar sided with Denmark (instead of Germany) in the territorial dispute over Schleswig and Holstein.
Speaking of England and Ireland…the name Oscar became trendy in England during the 1880s and 1890s thanks to Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. Not long after he was born, in late 1854, his mother wrote to a friend: “He is to be called Oscar Fingal Wilde. Is not that grand, misty, and Ossianic?”
What are your thoughts on the name Oscar?
- Charles XIV John – Wikipedia
- Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
- Hanks, Patrick, Kate Hardcastle and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of First Names. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- James Macpherson – Britannica
- Kidd, Colin Kidd and James Coleman. “Mythical Scotland.” The Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History, edited by T. M. Devine and Jenny Wormald, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 62-77.
- King Carl Johan (1763-1844) – The Royal House of Norway
- Oscar I of Sweden – Wikipedia
- Ossian – Wikipedia
- Redmonds, George. Names and History: People, Places and Things. London: Hambledon and London, 2004.