The History of the Name “Wendy”
A lot of people will argue about whether or not the name Wendy was created by J.M. Barrie for the character “Wendy Darling” in his books about Peter Pan.
Is it true? Yes and no…
Wendy of Eons Past
Most of my life I thought the name Wendy is derivative of Gwendolyn or some variation of a way-way-back historical name you’d never want to assign to any young girl.
This is only partially true.
A Doctor of Folklore (Leslie Ellen Jones, Ph.D.) told me some interesting stuff about the names Gwendolyn, Guinevere, and Wendy.
Gwendolyn and Guinevere are etymologically related in that they are both Welsh names beginning with the element “gwen-” which means “white/dazzling/holy” and is a *very* popular and productive name element for both female and male names. (The Welsh form of Guinevere is Gwenhwyfar, “white phantom/shadow”, which is an exact cognate of the Irish name Finnabhair, the name of the daughter of Medb and Aillill of Connacht, in the Ulster cycle). Personally, if Wendy is derived from a Welsh name, my candidate would be Gwendydd (pronounced Gwen-deethe, “white day”), which was the name of Myrddin (Merlin)’s sister (as in the poem Ymddiddan Myrddin a Gwendydd ei Chwaer, the Conversation of Merlin and Gwendydd his Sister).
Barrie’s “Wendy” was invented at a time when ancient Welsh names were becoming popular again, as an expression of intellectual nationalism.
Mail from someone who does genealogical research shows that “Wendy” might have been in use before Peter Pan and might even have been a boy’s name:
I must admit to being annoyed when I tell people my name. They always insist on mentioning Peter Pan. During my family research I have come across the name Wendy twice in the 1881 census of England, one born 1840, and one born in 1880. The magazine Family History also states that Wendy, along with the names Marian and Shirley were once boys names, and that in 1797 a boy named Wendy was apprenticed to some one in Glos.
And last, my own research has found references to two different emperors in
China who have the name “Wendi” (sometimes also referred to as Wen-Ti):
Barrie Brings Rise to the Popularity of Wendy
While research shows that Barrie didn’t invent the name “Wendy”, he might as well have. Barrie introduced the character Wendy Darling in Peter Pan in 1904.
It is well-known that J.M. Barrie’s work was often inspired by the antics of children. Many important characters in his books are modeled after children of his friends and associates.
One such child was a little girl named Margaret Henley (shown at the left) who adored Barrie and always called him “my friendy”. However, because she couldn’t pronounce her r’s, the words came out “my fwendy”. One variation of the tale says Margaret called Barrie “friendy-wendy” or in her pronunciation, “fwendy-wendy”.
Margaret Henley died at age six (c. 1895). But Barrie used Margaret’s invented name “Wendy” for a character who symbolizes mothering, caring, loyalty, and undying friendship. Who would have thought that the tenor of the world would be affected by a nickname invented by a little six year old girl? Imagine the ripples she’s caused.
For example, I was named after the character of Wendy Darling from Peter Pan. My mother thought “Wendy” was a magical name and fell in love with it. If it weren’t for Margaret Henley, this web site wouldn’t exist.
If you look at the picture of Margaret, you will see she also has on a cloak. This cloak was the model for Wendy Darling’s cloak in Peter Pan.
Besides her inspirations for costumes and character names, Margaret also appears briefly as a character herself in Barrie’s Sentimental Tommy. The character “Reddy” is a child-friend of Tommy’s who dies at the age of six. Barrie wrote to Margaret’s father in September of 1895, some months after Margaret died. Barrie wrote, “She flits thro’ the opening of my story, which is now in America.”
Despite the popularity of Peter Pan, “Wendy” as a name did not come into general use until the 1920s, although some parents used “Wenda”, first appearing in 1907, as a familiar form of the name.
The name Wendy was more popular in Britain (its country of origin) than in the United States.
In the 1940s, the variation “Wendie” was regularly used and “Wendi” appeared in the 1960s, which is when the name reached its peak in Britain. In the United States Wendy reached its peak in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the popularity of Wendy was in sharp decline.
The Facts on File Dictionary of First Names, Leslie Dunkling and William Goshing, 1983, J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd.
Dictionary of First Names, Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, Oxford University Press, 1990
J.M. Barrie and The Lost Boys, Andrew Birkin, 1979,Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.