About Names: the story behind the name “Jasmine” in Disney’s Aladdin and beyond

Cosplayers portraying Jasmine and Aladdin at a convention in 2014 (Photo by: RyC Behind the Lens, CC-BY-2.0)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his March 10th column, he discusses the name “Jasmine”.

Remember Whitley Gilbert, spoiled “Southern belle” college student on sitcom “A Different World” (1987-1993)?

Jasmine Guy, who became famous playing Whitley, turns 62 today. She recently won an Emmy as Barbara Baldwin on streaming series “Chronicles of Jessica Wu.”

Jasmine’s the name of a genus of over 200 shrubs and vines cultivated for the beauty and aroma of their flowers. At least 13 other garden plants not in the genus are also called “jasmine” in everyday English.

The word, originally Persian “yasmin,” traveled through Arabic and French to England along with the plants around 1500. It was first “jessamine” in English, with modern “jasmine” not found until about 1575.

Though girls have been named Yasmin in the Middle East for centuries, it wasn’t until the Victorian craze for names like Daisy and Hazel that British and American parents named babies after jasmine.

The earliest examples are forms of Jessamine, probably because it resembled then-popular Jessie. Jessamine’s never been common, though variations are borne by two famous American novelists: Jessamyn West (1902-1984), whose “The Friendly Persuasion” was a 1945 bestseller; and Jesmyn Ward (born 1977), winner of the National Book Award for “Salvage the Bones” (2011) and “Sing, Unburied, Sing” (2017).

In an amazing coincidence, considering Guy’s character, the first girl named Jasmine in the United States census was Mississippi-born Jasmine Whitley (1872-1952), who married Philip MacMahon and spent most of her life in Laredo, Texas.

Missouri-born Jasmine Stone Van Dresser (1878-1948) was the first prominent Jasmine. “Jessie” in the 1880 census, after 1900 she’s always “Jasmine.” Moving to New York to attempt a stage career, she married fellow actor William Van Dresser in 1902. Though during World War I they performed plays Jasmine wrote for soldiers at military bases, she made her living writing children’s books, which William illustrated. These included “How to Find Happyland” (1907) and “Jimsey” (1925), about an interracial friendship between two girls.

The name stayed rare until 1973, when it first entered the top thousand. Name observer Abby Sandel has suggested Seals and Crofts’ 1972 hit “Summer Breeze,” with its line “blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind,” was responsible, though more importantly, Jasmine was a “different but not too different” shift from Jessica, Amanda and Kristin.

Though Jasmine had risen to 95th in 1985, Guy’s “A Different World” fame skyrocketed it. In 1991 it had almost quadrupled to rank 24th. Disney’s Princess Jasmine in “Aladdin” gave it a final push to peak at 23rd in 1993.

Jasmine’s attracted many respellings. If all those named Jasmin, Jazmin, Jazmine, Jazmyn, Jasmyn, Jasmyne, Jazzmin, etc. were added in, it would’ve ranked ninth in 1993.