Cornwall’s most popular export

William Morris painting of legendary Queen Guinevere, 1858

Being the age I am, every other woman within ten years of my age either way is named Jennifer in the Anglophone world. Though my personal tastes strongly tend towards classical eccentric and classical unusual, I’ve always had fond feelings for Jennifer. I can’t think of a single bad Jennifer I’ve ever known, and I’ve encountered quite a few over forty years!

Jennifer is the Cornish form of the Welsh Gwenhwyfar (white phantom), which derives from Old Celtic roots •windos (white, fair, blessed) and *sebros (magical being, phantom). Almost everyone is familiar with Norman–French form Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur. Though they sound nothing alike, the Old Irish form is Findabair (Fionnabhair in modern Irish).

It’s just a coincidence that Jennifer sounds very similar to Juniper. The names have completely different etymologies.

U.S. actor Jennifer Jones (1919–2009) in 1953

Jennifer was extremely rare outside of Cornwall before the 18th century, and only began gaining in recognition and popularity in 1906, when Sir George Bernard Shaw used it as the name of the female protagonist in the play The Doctor’s Dilemma. In 1934, it entered the Top 100 in England and Wales. It attained its highest rank of #11 there in 1984, and stayed in their Top 100 till 2005.

Jennifer entered the U.S. Top 1000 in 1938, at #992. It jumped to #891 the next year, then #686, #604, #527, #397, #263, #199, #156. Its big leaps in popularity during the 1940s were likely strongly influenced by the above-pictured Jennifer Jones. The name continued gaining in popularity, and entered the Top 100 in 1956 at #97.

By 1965, Jennifer was #20, and it was #10 the next two years. It then rose to #4 and #3 before landing at #1 in 1970, a position it occupied till 1984. Jennifer stayed in the Top 10 till 1991, the Top 20 till 1998, and the Top 100 till 2008. In 2018, it was #344.

It’s common knowledge that Jennifer got its biggest boost of popularity thanks to the 1970 novel and film Love Story (with the hideous catchphrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”).

A suggested reason it remained on the chart so long past that film is that it was the first love story with a tragic ending many young women saw, and it remained with them all those years. When they had daughters, Jennifer was the natural choice. For similar reasons, the oversaturated Madison is still hanging around the Top 100 years after 1984’s Splash!

Jennifer remained #1 in Delaware, Massachusetts, and Illinois till 1985. Tellingly, its immediate replacement on the overall chart was Jessica. Parents tired of Jennifer turned to a name with a fairly similar sound, just as Emily was replaced by Emma, Madeline overtook Madison, and Amelia replaced Emma. The original names never stopped being widely-used, but many people desired a close-enough substitute.

Italian aristocrat Ginevra de’ Benci (1457–1521), painted ca. 1474–78 by Leonardo da Vinci

Other forms of this hugely popular name include:

1. Guenièvre is French.

2. Ginevra is Italian and Portuguese.

3. Yenifer is Latin American–Spanish.

4. Jenifer is Spanish, Cornish, and English.

5. Jenefer is another Cornish variation.

6. Gwenivar is Breton.

7. Ginebra is Catalan.

8. Ginewra is Polish.

9. Gvinevra is Russian. Not a name that translates well into this language!

10. Xenebra, or Xenevra, is Galician.

U.S. socialite Ginevra King, 1898–1980

11. Gaenor, or Gaynor, is Welsh.

12. Dzsenifer is Hungarian. Also not a language that’s naturally suited to translating this name as-is.

13. Gkouinevir is Greek. What I said about Hungarian and Russian.

14. Dženifera is Latvian. Not exactly fond of this form either.

15. Gennifer is English.

16. Ginnifer, or Ginifer, is English.

17. Jeniffer is a rare Scandinavian form.

18. Jennifera is a rare English form.

19. Llénifer is a rare Spanish form.