Sunday, May 10, 2009


It has been a while since I have written a post on a single name, but with Emma being crowned the most popular US female name, overthrowing Emily, I thought that this was deserved. Anyway, for such a short name, Emma has some interesting history.

I'll start with a comparison:
Emma in the UK:

Here in Britain, Emma's on a downwards turn - particularly popular in the 1970s and 80s when the name was #4, and the 1840s-70s when Emma was in the top 10. In the 2007, Emma charted at #26 - not unheard of, but not the popularity experienced in USA.

USA (I'm being a little lazy and using a screenshot from Laura Wattenburg's fantastic Name Voyager - if you're really interested in Emma's graph, then this great tool allows you to check out the # in certain decades. The Name Mapper is also quite awesome - Emma seems to have originated in terms of popularity in the NE/New England area). 

Though Emma is #3 in 1880s, this counted for a larger percentage of babies compared with today. It fell to #448 in 1970s, before rising to #2 in 2000s, and #1 in 2008.

It's a bit of an unfair comparison to show the US data, which runs from 1880 to 2008, with my UK data, which runs from 1840 to 2007. To try and rectify that, I've cut the UK
 data back to 1880 (bare in mind that 1910-44 I have no data, so have no idea what Emma was doing!)

In both countries, Emma falls from a high position in 1880, to obscurity in the early 20th century. However, in the UK, Emma rises back to popularity in 1970s, whereas it is in its deepest trough in the US at that point. Obviously, Emma's cycle of popularity in the UK is shorter than in the US, or at least, shifted to a different era.

So, where to begin with Emma?

With most names, people tend to associate names with a particular person or thing. Some will be universal - a literature, historical, movie, celebrity reference, others will be more personal - mother, girl from school, friend's daughter etc. For me, Emma is associated primarily with Emma of Normandy, wife of two rather differing kings of England.

Emma was a political pawn - a way of these kings of England to cement an alliance with Normandy. Her first husband was Aethelred the 'Unready', the second was his opponent Cnut the 'Great' of Denmark, who conquered England. Emma was known in England as Aelfgifu - which was also the name of the first wives of Aethelred and Cnut, but is primarily known by her first name, Emma, now due to her biography: the Encomium Emmae. This highly selective work ignores her marriage to Aethelred, though is happy to highlight the rise of her son by him, Edward the Confessor. Emma is also one of the very few, if only, person living before the Norman Conquest whose residence can be located - God Begot House in Winchester, which is now a pizza restaurant. She was, for the period, a highly remarkable woman and compared with other women from the period, she was highly visible in records.
What is the point of writing about Emma of Normandy? Well, she introduced the name to England, where it was used throughout the Middle Ages, particularly in the one syllable form of Emm. My assumption is that like the other popular female name from pre-Norman conquest England, Edith, Emma was superceded by Biblical names such as Mary, Sarah and Elizabeth from 12th century onwards. Redmonds has a list in his 'Christian Names in Local and Family History' which has found the most popular names from some records (poll tax? I think) from 1377-81, where Emme comes in #6 - above Sarah, Elizabeth and Mary. Other Emmas from before the 18th century revival of the name include Emma of France, daughter of Robert I; Emma of Italy, daughter of Lothair II and mother of Louis V of France; Emma of Provence, daughter of Rotbold III; Emma of Hauteville, daughter of Robert Guiscard; Emma de Guader, Countess of Norfolk and daughter of William Fitz-Osbern; St Emma of Lesum; St Hemma of Gurk and Emma of Altdorf, wife of Louis the German.

We now have to skip forward to 1761 and the birth of another Emma. Or Emy, as Emma, Lady Hamilton was born, she later adopted the name Emma. The mistress of Lord Nelson, Emma was the first in a group of 18th century namesakes. I've mentioned this before, but E.G. Withycombe attributes Emma's reburst of popularity to the poet Matthew Prior (1664-1721), who wrote the poem Henry and Emma. Though Emma Hamilton was the first of a group of famous Emmas, that does not necessarily mean that she was original in her new name choice.

Another 'Emma' that precedes Emma Hamilton was Emmanuel College, Cambridge, founded in 1584 and known today as 'Emma'. Whether it was known as Emma prior to the revival of the name is not known by me. 

I'm going to move onto the Emma now, that novel by Jane Austen. A brief interlude, to stay somewhat chronological, is to say that Emma Darwin, wife of Charles, was born in 1808 into the Wedgwood family. However, she was no child prodigy, so if she had any effect on the popularity or perception of the name, it would not occur until later in her life.

Emma Woodhouse, of Emma, written 1815, is a striking, beautiful, witty heroine who is a disastrous matchmaker. Despite her matchmaking failures, the book has been extremely popular.  Emma also appeared as Emma Bovary in Flaubert's 1857 Madame Bovary, but by then the name was fully revived.

Thinking about Emma's revival in Britain in the 1970s, I'd like to propose that Diana Rigg's character Emma Peel in The Avengers was at least partly responsible. The name was a play on M Appeal or Man Appeal, rather than an effort to revive the name of Emma Woodhouse, Hamilton and Bovary. Emma Peel first appeared in 1965 - as my data comes from 1964, then the sudden change to not being in the top 100 in 1964, to #4 in 1974 is very obvious. 

Nowadays, there are numerous pop culture and celebrity references that can be used to try and explain the popularity of Emma: perhaps it's actress Emma Thompson, Spice Girl Emma Thompson or Ross&Rachel's daughter in Friends. Or maybe it's none of them: it is conceivable that American audiences have become accustomed to Emma as not being primarily associated with anything in particular at the moment. Emma's historical, literary and pop culture, whilst not being overwhelmingly any of those. 

Will Emma stick at the top in the US?
Hmm, well there was only 200 births between Isabella and Emma, and as pointed out by Laura Wattenburg, if Emma had had that number of births in 2007 it would only have been #3 - there by the grace of the decline of Emily and Isabella. But Emma didn't fall last year - it has been but it increased by 300 births between 2006 and 7. It very much seems that Emma's position depends on its neighbours - Isabella could still push up to the top, or perhaps Sophia - which is the most popular name in terms of sound. Emily does however, seem on the way down. Roll on 2009!