About Names: “Cleveland Evans: Dude, call him Jeff, Jeffrey or Jefferson, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing”

Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges at Lebowskifest 2011 (Photo by Joe Poletta, CC-BY-2.0)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his December 4th column, he looks at the name Jeff.

Happy birthday to Lightfoot, Starman, Rooster Cogburn and Otis “Bad” Blake!

Actor Jeff Bridges was born Jeffrey Leon Bridges on Dec. 4, 1949. Nominated for Best Actor for “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), “Starman” (1984), and “True Grit” (2010), he won playing alcoholic country singer Blake in “Crazy Heart” (2009). He’s had three Best Supporting nods, including “The Last Picture Show” (1971) and “Hell or High Water” (2016), making him among the youngest and oldest actors nominated.

Jeffrey’s a respelling of Geoffrey, a medieval French name that merged three ancient Germanic ones. The final syllable is from “frid” (“peace”). The first could be “gawia” (“territory”), “walha” (“foreign”) or “gisil” (“hostage”).

Geoffrey was common among the Plantagenets, Counts of Anjou in northern France. The fifth Count Geoffrey (1113-1151) married Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England. Henry proclaimed her his heir, but when he died in 1135 the English weren’t ready for a reigning queen. A civil war ended by making her cousin Stephen king, and her son Henry his heir.

Though Count Geoffrey died before his son became King Henry II, the Plantagenets popularized his name in England. In 1379, Geoffrey ranked 12th for English men, leading to surnames like Geffen, Jeffries and Jefferson.

After 1500, Geoffrey became rare. The 1851 British census found only 1,041 men named Jeffery, Jeffrey or Geoffrey. The 1850 United States census, when the countries had about the same population, had only 475.

That doesn’t mean Jeff was an uncommon nickname in the United States. Veneration of third President Thomas Jefferson made Jefferson a popular first name. Confederate President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) reinforced that in the South. The 1870 census found 21,630 men with Jefferson as a first name and 8,076 Jeffs, compared to 1,083 Jeffreys.

In 1930, there were 12,431 Jeffersons, 20,904 Jeffs, and 2,719 Jeffreys. By then Geoffrey was booming for babies in England. In the 1930s Hollywood began promoting Jeffrey to Americans.