About Names: Shirley’s star has fallen since Temple’s heyday

Shirley Temple wearing the Kennedy Center Honors, 1998

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his April 23rd column, he looks at the history of the name Shirley.

Shirley, Old English for “bright woodland clearing,” is the name of several English villages. As a surname, it shows that one’s ancestor lived in one of them. Several aristocratic English families are called Shirley. In 1403, Sir Hugh Shirley was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, one of four knights deliberately dressed as King Henry IV to confuse the enemy.

When the custom of turning surnames into given names developed around 1700, boys named Shirley appeared in both Britain and America. Then in 1849, Charlotte Brontë published “Shirley,” her most famous novel after “Jane Eyre.” When wealthy heiress Shirley Keeldar first appears, it’s explained that “her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that … Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy.”

Shirley had a bit more staying power than many celebrity-inspired names, not leaving the top thousand until 2009. Two Shirleys named after Shirley Temple in 1934 — MacLaine and Jones — had huge film careers themselves.

Want to know more? Read on to find out more about Shirleys in history!