Psst…you know Jenny and Jessie, right? They’re the standard nicknames for Jennifer and Jessica, the two names that dominated American fashion for decades. No names could be more familiar. Well, once upon a time Jenny and Jessie weren’t the same nicknames-next-door that we know and love. In fact, they weren’t Jennifer and Jessica at all. Back in the 19th Century, Jenny and Jessie were…the same name. From the point of view of name dictionaries, at least.
Take a look at the two names’ entries in a 1863 reference book by English writer Charlotte Yonge:
“Hebrew, grace of the Lord”; “Hebrew, grace of the Lord.” The only apparent distinction between the two names was that Jenny was considered English, Jessie Scottish. How can that be?
To untangle this mystery, we need help from another familiar name: the male classic John. John derives from the Hebrew Yochanan meaning “God is gracious,” or in 19th-century terms, “grace of the Lord.” Female versions of John include Jane and Jean. Yep, those are the names defined in the 1863 name glossary.
Back when the glossary was written, Jennifer was just an obscure Cornish version of Guinevere. Jessica was just a Shakespearean character name. Jennie and Jessie, meanwhile, were nicknames for Jane and Jean, and they were hits. The 1870 US Census tallied 248 women named Jessie or Jenny for every Jessica or Jennifer.
Let’s pause for a moment and contemplate this mindbender: the origins of the names changed over time.
The etymological ground gets even shakier when you dive into the roots of Jessica and Jennifer. Scholars debate the roots of Jennifer, with possibilities ranging from “soft & blessed” to “pale phantom.” Jessica was Shakespeare’s invention, his attempt at a Jewish-sounding name for The Merchant of Venice. Some speculate that it was inspired by the Biblical name Iscah/Jesca. Others suggest that it’s a feminine form of Jesse, or an elaboration on—wait for it—the nickname Jessie. That last theory can send our origin hunt into an infinite loop.
Climbing out of the etymology morass, there’s another mystery in plain sight. Why have we been talking about Jenny with a y, and Jessie with an ie? Yes, those are the dominant spellings today by a wide margin. Charlotte Yonge apparently considered them standard in England in 1863 as well. But it wasn’t always that way.
In 19th-century America, Jennie was the overwhelming favorite. Nicknames ending in -ie were wildly fashionable, and Jennie was a standby along with the likes of Minnie and Nellie. The spelling Jenny didn’t take the lead until the 1950s when the new hit Jennifer was just taking hold.
In short, if you’re an American woman today you’re most likely to be a Jenny (not Jennie), inspired by Jennifer. You’re most likely to have a Great-Great-Grandma Jennie (not Jenny), inspired by Jane. And Jessie, a form of Jessica, may derive from Jessie, a form of John. Take it all as a reminder that every name contains hidden multitudes, even the names we think we know best.
I was half-expecting there to be a relation between Jessie (F) and Jesse (M), the anglicized version of Yishai…
Is Yonatan for Johnathan instead of Yochanan for John a modern idea?
Thank you for this column. Indeed, my grandmother (b. 1895) was a Jennie, from Jane. She always said Jennie was a Scots nickname for Jane.
But I can add insight to the “-ie” part. Jenny is a term for a female donkey and not a term for a person. I can imagine by the 1950s, so few people were farming with donkeys that the terminology was uncommon, and the spelling shift happened. My grandmother was quite clear that she was not to be confused with donkey!
Oh, this is fascinating, thank you! I’ve always wondered about the Jennys in 19th century literature, eighty years before Jennifer took off. And my great-aunt was a Jesse (that spelling), born around 1920. Her grand-daughter Jessica, born in the late 70s, was named “after” her.