Doris' day came after silent film actress -
Published Tuesday, April 3, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:43 pm
Doris' day came after silent film actress

Today is Doris Day's birthday.

Her age isn't clear. Day's publicity says 88. Some biographies claim 90.

When the census taker visited her Cincinnati home on April 10, 1930, he wrote down "seven" as Doris Kappelhoff's age. So 89 is the best guess.

Doris is originally a Greek name simply meaning "woman from Doris," a region of central Greece.

In Greek myth, Doris was wife of the sea god Nereus and mother of the Nereids, between 50 and 100 sea nymphs.

As a goddess, Doris has no personality. Nevertheless, her name was used for real women in ancient Greece. In the 4th century B.C. a Doris was wife of Dionysius I, Greek tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily.

The name turned up in Roman poetry. Around 100 A.D., Juvenal satirized male actors who think they can play "nude Doris" on stage.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, authors imitated classical poets in the "pastoral poetry" movement. Characters in pastoral poems often had classical names. For example, Alexander Pope's 1709 poem "Autumn" features shepherds Hylas and Aegon singing about Delia and Doris.

In the 1850 United States Census, there are 132 Dorises. I was surprised that 80 of them were born in Germany. Many others were daughters of German immigrants. None of my reference books on names mention a German connection for Doris.

Names scholar Gerald Cohen sent me references showing that pastoral poetry was as popular in Germany as England. German poets used the name Doris frequently.

For example, Christiane Mariane von Ziegler (1695-1760), one of the first successful German woman poets, used Doris in several poems. Composer Franz Joseph Haydn made one a song.

In the 1819 census of the German province Mecklenburg-Schwerin, (one of the world's first to list everyone's name), there were 420 Dorises.

In England, Doris was very rare. The 1841 English census shows only six Dorises, and one was born in Germany.

In 1880, more than 1,000 Dorises lived in the United States, overwhelmingly still German immigrants or their daughters. In England's 1881 census, there were 136.

Then in 1889, composer Alfred Cellier presented his comic opera "Doris" on the London stage. It ran for 202 performances, introducing the name to British parents.

In 1900, there were 8,085 Dorises in this country; in 1901, there were 43,669 in England.

Between 1900 and 1925, Doris was a top-10 name in England. Americans without German ancestry began to take it up.

Doris was ranked 594th for American girls born in 1880. In 1897, it was 139th. That year, a Methodist minister's daughter in Syracuse, N.Y., was named Doris Kenyon.

Kenyon became a huge star in silent films. Doris Day's mother, Alma Kappelhoff, named her daughter after Doris Kenyon.

Doris kept booming in the United States. In the top 10 from 1924 to 1933, it peaked at sixth place in 1929, when 16,488 Dorises arrived.

Did Americans finally notice the German Dorises in their midst, or did the English fad for Doris cross the Atlantic? It's hard to tell.

Doris is an early example of a rare name skyrocketing because it sounds like other fashions. It blends the start of Dorothy with the end of Alice and Frances. As British name expert Leslie Dunkling says, if Doris hadn't already existed, someone would have invented it.

By the time Doris Day was famous, the name Doris was on its way out. It left the top 50 names in 1946, the top 100 in 1955, and the top 1,000 in 1993. In 2010, only 66 Dorises were born in this country, the fewest since 1889.

Doris Day's popularity never caused a revival of Doris. Parents don't name babies after even the biggest stars if they also know scores of adult women with the same name. Jennifer Lawrence's newfound fame from "Hunger Games" won't lead to a lot of babies named Jennifer, either.

Still, the fame of Doris Day and her contemporaries such as British novelist Doris Lessing, (the oldest person ever to win a Nobel Prize, in 2007), have insured that the name won't completely disappear. Sometime in the 2030s, Doris may boom again. Que sera, sera.

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