This morning, I read a post over on Waltzing More than Matilda about a baby called Jasper, and it got me musing about names which, on the surface, appear to be straightforward adoptions of English words, but are, in fact — in origin at least — entirely unrelated. The most popular name of this kind currently in use is Lily, and after yesterday’s Harry Potter Premier! post, it seems the perfect name to put a spotlight on today.
Lily — now almost exclusively associated with the flower (so much so that the Wikipedia entry entirely fails to mention its original roots) — actually arose in the Middle Ages as a short-form of Elizabeth — Lylie. This quickly developed its own pet-form — Lillian/Lilian, which has been treated as a name in its own right since at least the 16th Century. It didn’t see much use, though, until the latter 19th Century, when it rapidly became one of the most popular girls’ names across the English-speaking world. And, inevitably, it was usually shortened to Lily. Lily was also very popular in its own right in the early 1900s in the UK; in the US, however — where short and pet-forms often seem to be shunned in favour of the full form — Lily remained relatively rare.
Like all names that enjoy great popularity, a time came when it started to be considered ‘over-used’, and, as people began to neglect it in favour of new darlings, it became associated with a particular generation. Thus, it came to pass that, by the 1960s, Lily and Lillian had ended up firmly in the ‘old Biddy’ category. I had an aunt of the name, and I’m afraid that even now, I struggle to associate Lily with anything other than alarming encounters with yellow dentures in a plastic mug, rows of granny pants and surgical stockings strung over a bath to dry, and a very particular kind of smell — one which didn’t bring lilies to mind..
Lily’s turning point in the US was in 1963, with an episode of Western TV series Wagon, called ‘the Lily Legend’. It boosted Lily from 983rd place in the Social Security Administration‘s ranks of that year to a dizzying 951st. The following year, Lily’s real saviour came along — Lily Munster in the TV sit-com The Munsters, which enjoyed its first run between 1964-66. Re-runs of this classic comedy over the following decade and a half are almost certainly responsible for keeping Lily hovering around the 1000th mark, rather than sinking still further. Further Munster spin-offs of various kinds, flower-power in the 70s, and the love of all things Victorian — which began in the 70s and flourished in the 80s — triggered the start of Lily’s complete rehabilitation, and it has been on the up in the US since ever since. In the late 90s and early 00s, it received a further massive boost — and gained what is now probably its most famous association — from Harry Potter, as the name of Harry’s devoted mother, Lily Potter. It can be no coincidence that it was in 2002 — following the release of the first Harry Potter film at the end of 2001 — that the name first leapt into the top 100 in the US.
There is a little irony to all of this. For, in 1960 — the year that the fictional Lily Evans Potter was born — Lily had sunk about as far as it could go in Britain; only 34 little girls in England and Wales were really given the name Lily (and no, none of them was an Evans!). In 1965, it had sunk to just 10. Then, in 1966 — the year the film Munster, Go Home! was released — it shot up to 59. It wasn’t all plain sailing after that — it dithered a bit until the early 80s, when, like in the US, it really began to take off. But Harry Potter has unquestionably influenced Lily’s astronomical rise in the UK in the last ten years, as much as elsewhere. In 1996, the year before the first Harry Potter was published in the UK, Lily was 83rd — it actually fallen two places from the previous year. In 1998, the year after publication, it had leapt to 62nd and by 2001, it was 36th. In 2002, it went up to 29th (and this is all without taking into account the different spellings, which would place the name considerably higher still).
I don’t usually go in for such in depth tracking of a name’s popularity — but Lily’s history is interesting because its reversal in fortune can be traced so clearly to two distinct products of popular culture. Yet Lily is one of those names held up as ‘traditional’ and ‘normal’, etc by those who like to knock more unusual or innovative names brought to a wider audience by some media source or other. They are entirely unaware — or conveniently forget — that Lily, like most of the names currently in vogue, is just as much a product of media influence and fashion as any other.
Lily is still a great name — not everyone has a smelly Auntie Lily to tarnish it for them — and I for one find it a bit sad that it is only a matter of time — and probably not very long from now either — that the arbiters of fashion will brand it ‘over-used’ and ‘out-dated’, and it will be promptly popped back into the reject bin for another sixty or seventy years. Ah well. Such are the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Lily Munster and Lily Potter will still remain, keeping it ever young in fantasy, until the next generation of baby Lilys come along.