Monday, October 8, 2012

Diverted by a Name: Wallis

Wallis Simpson in 1936, via Wikipedia

As I was going through names that begin with W for my next "Case of the Letter", I came across a lot of female Wallaces. A female Wallace? What a masculine name for a baby girl! But, then I remembered the most famous female Wallace... that is Wallis Simpson, the American socialite with whom the King of England fell so in love that he abdicated the throne (she was twice divorced, which was a no-no for court). What a crazy and romantic story, and I love that there is an interesting name in the middle of it.

Her given name was Bessie Wallis Warfield, and she was named after her aunt Bessie and her father, Teackle Wallis Warfield. She was called Bessie Wallis for several years until the Bessie was dropped completely at some point in her younger days. From then on, she was Wallis Warfield.  If you just saw that name in print, would you think male or female?

Wallace is a surname, and Behind the Name says that it was originally used as a given name to honor the Scottish hero William Wallace. The Wallis spelling does feminize it a bit in my eye, but there were many male Wallises as well as female Wallaces in the 20th century. The first female Wallace showed up on the SSA list in 1898 and became more prevalent in the 1910s. There were 18 female Wallaces in 1924, the most of any year. The female Wallace started disappearing in the 1970s but was still present in the 1990s. As for Wallis, the male Wallis started showing up in the 1910s with the female Wallises appearing in the 1930s.  Not surprisingly, the name jumped from six occurrences in 1936 (its first appearance as a female name) to 33 in 1937, the year Mrs. Simpson married the former king. That was the most baby girls named Wallis in a year, but the name stayed pink until 1962, stayed blue until the 1970s, and then came back solely as a girl name in the 1980s before disappearing again in 2006.  As you may have guessed, there are still little boy Wallaces being born every year.

The more I look into the history of naming, the more I see current trends applicable to the past.  It may be more prevalent now, but parents were using male names for their daughters long ago. I would guess that it was mostly to honor a male relative, but there were probably trendy parents setting the stage as well. And we only need to look at Wallis Simpson to see the influence a celebrity can have on naming trends. How many female Maxwells do we anticipate seeing in the coming years?


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