By and large, the etymologies of our names are mere curiosities. “Daniel,” for example, has biblical roots, a Jewish prophet who rose to prominence by interpreting the dreams of the King of Babylon. Per one site, the name Daniel was popular through the Middle Ages, then fell out of favor, until being revived during the Protestant Reformation. It has remained popular since. According to the Social Security Administration, “Daniel” has been one of the top 10 male baby names every year from 1999-2009 (the only years in which they provide searchable data, see bottom right of this page), and has cracked the top 5 four times since 1910 — all since 1985.
Indeed, many names have etymologies stretching back to antiquity, with many going back to the Old Testament, Ancient Greece, or Ancient Rome. The name “Wendy,” however, has a unique story. To a large degree, it’s from a literary work not quite as old or influential as the Old Testament, but still pretty well known – Peter Pan.
In 1904, J. M. Barrie wrote the play Peter Pan, introducing a character named Wendy Darling, the female protagonist. The name Wendy was, theretofore, all but unknown in English speaking circles. A few dozen “Wendy”s appeared in the 1880 U.S. Census and a handful (albeit male!) in the 1881 U.K. Census, and birth records stateside list a Wendy Gram, female, born in Ohio in 1828. But other than a scattered few Wendys, the name was unknown.
From where did Barrie come up with the name? Most likely, it comes from Margaret Henley, above, the young girl who inspired Barrie’s creation of Wendy Darling. Henley died at the age of five of cerebral meningitis, but not before befriending Barrie. The young girl called Barrie her “friendy,” but, as many young children do, pronounced her “r”s as “w”s: “fwendy.” Barrie likely took this, turned it into “Wendy,” and the rest is history.
Over the last twenty years, “Wendy” has been a top 500 baby girl’s name in the U.S. all but once (505th in 2009). It was the 206th most popular in 1990 — the last available data point from the Social Security Administration — but anecdotal evidence suggests that the name hit its peak popularity in the 1970s, declining since.
Bonus fact: Barrie bequeathed the rights to the Peter Pan franchise to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, which has been collecting royalties from the works since 1929.
From the Archives: Repetitive Numbers: The story behind a Social Security faux pas.
Related: Peter Pan in Scarlet, by Geraldine McCaughren. The only officially sanctioned sequel (by the Great Ormond Street Hospital) to Peter Pan, it’s received 3.5 stars on Amazon from 49 very mixed reviews. $6.99 in paperback and available on Kindle for a dollar less.