About Names: Shakespeare invented the name “Jessica”

Astronaut Jessica Meir in her EMU suit (Photo by Josh Valcarcel, Public Domain)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his March 24th column, he discusses the name “Jessica”.

Happy birthday to two Tammys who are both Jessica.

Jessica Chastain, who won 2021’s Best Actress Oscar as evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” and a Screen Actors Guild award as country singer Tammy Wynette in Showtime’s 2022 “George & Tammy,” turns 47 today.

The name Jessica was invented around 1597 by William Shakespeare for “The Merchant of Venice.” Jessica, Jewish moneylender Shylock’s daughter, feels unloved by her inflexible father and elopes with Christian lover Lorenzo.

It’s been speculated Shakespeare modified “Jesca,” (Hebrew “he looks”), name of Abraham’s niece, mentioned once in Genesis. “Jesca” in early translations, since the 1611 King James version it’s ”Iscah” in English Bibles. Others think Jessica’s simply a feminine for Jesse (possibly “God exists”), David’s father.

Shakespearean name expert Grant Smith thinks Jessica’s from “jess,” the leather strip binding hunting falcons to one’s arm. Other Shakespearean heroines, including Desdemona in “Othello”, are compared to falcons, and Jessica breaks bonds with her father.

In the late 18th century, real girls began being named after Shakespeare’s Jessica. The oldest of 88 Jessicas in Britain’s 1841 first census, Jessica Hoppens of Somerset, was born in 1781.

Surprisingly, given the first Jessica’s conversion, the earliest American Jessicas were Jewish. Malcolm Stern’s “First American Jewish Families” includes Jessica (Jochebed) Simson (1810-1886), wife of New York rabbi Ansel Leo — an example of Jews using a Hebrew name in synagogue (Jochebed was Moses’ mother) and an “English” one elsewhere.

Mrs. Leo was “Jessie” in the 1850 census. The oldest of 16 Jessicas, Jessica Lyons (1822-1894) married Alfred Jones, first president of Philadelphia’s Jewish Hospital Association. His sister, Jessica Jones (1824-1902), married George Davis, founder of a San Francisco department store.

In 1880 when Social Security’s lists start, Jessica ranked 705th. It started rising in 1942, when model Jessica Patton Barkentin (1920-2003) began appearing on magazine covers.

Jessica jumped in 1946 when fan magazines featured actress Deanna Durbin with new daughter Jessica — an early example of celebrity babies inspiring fashion. It then plateaued until 1962, when Angie Dickinson played an American nurse stranded in Sicily in romantic comedy “Jessica,” and author Jessica Mitford published bestseller “The American Way of Death” (1963).

Jessica kept rising as a “different but not too different” alternative for Jennifer. Actress Jessica Walter (1941-2021) helped by starring in “Play Misty For Me” (1971).

Jessica had been in the top 10 for eight years when Jessica Lange (born 1949) won an Oscar for “Tootsie” in 1983. Angela Lansbury starred as sleuth Jessica Fletcher on “Murder She Wrote” from 1984 to 1996.