Who won an Oscar playing someone of the opposite sex and a different race?
Linda Hunt, who was Chinese-Australian photographer Billy Kwan ain 1983’s “The Year of Living Dangerously.”
Hunt, whose name at birth was Lydia Hunter, turns 68 today. Young people may best recognize her as supervisor Hetty Lange on “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
The name Linda has a complex history. In continental Europe, it’s derived from Germanic names like Gerlinde, Sieglinde and Ermelinda that contain “linde,” meaning “gentle” or “flexible.”
Ermelinda spread to Italy and Spain from the fame of St. Ermelinda, a Belgian hermit who died in 595.
In 1803, German author Jean Paul (born Johann Paul Richter) published his novel “Titan.” Linda is one of the women the hero loves. German and Dutch experts trace the use of Linda as a separate name to “Titan.”
In 1842, composer Gaetano Donizetti premiered his opera “Linda de Chamounix.” Linda’s use in Italy stems from Donizetti’s character.
But in England and America, Linda has little to do with St. Ermelinda, Jean Paul or Donizetti. Here it began as a short form of names English authors favored.
Italians writing tales about Charlemagne created the name Belinda around 1250. Spaniard Miguel Cervantes, in his novel “Don Quixote,” created the name Lucinda in 1615.
Seventeenth-century English authors loved these names, and created the similar Melinda on their own.
Among many examples are Aphra Behn’s 1680 poem “The Coquette,” which is about “always amorous and kind” Melinda. Alexander Pope’s 1712 satire “The Rape of Lock” is about a Belinda.
By 1780, all were common for real girls in England and America. The 1850 United States census includes 3,081 Belindas, 8,690 Melindas, 21,798 Malindas and 57,673 Lucindas. There were also 454 Lindas.
We don’t know how many in 1850 were official Lindas and how many just had Linda as a nickname. Examples of Linda as a nickname abound. Lucinda “Linda” Guilford (1823-1911) founded private schools in Ohio. In 1873, Malinda “Linda” Richards was the first woman to graduate from a professional nursing school.
In 1850, Caroline Lee Hentz published “Linda, or the Young Pilot of the Belle Creole.” In this novel, Linda resists a cruel stepmother’s efforts to make her “genteel,” and runs away to live in poverty with Indians. She later marries the “young pilot” and becomes the perfect middle-class wife and mother.
Though forgotten today, “Linda” was a bestseller and helped establish the name as an official form. In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby name lists begin, Linda ranked 305th for American girls. Linda Lee, later famous as songwriter Cole Porter’s wife, was born in Kentucky in 1883.
Linda ranked around 300th until 1931, when it began to boom. It sounded like other newly popular names such as Donna, Sandra and Wanda. Linda also had an especially strong pop culture “feedback loop,” where a name’s fashion leads to its use in songs and films, which then further increases its popularity.
In 1930, Ann Harding was nominated for an Oscar for playing Linda Seton in “Holiday.” In 1931, internationally famous British crooner Al Bowlly recorded a song “Linda.”
In 1936, Myrna Loy (playing opposite Clark Gable) was Linda Stanhope in the hit comedy “Wife vs. Secretary.” The next year Ginger Rogers (opposite Fred Astaire) was Linda Keene in “Shall We Dance?”
In 1940, Linda Darnell (born Monetta Eloyse Darnell) became a star in “Brigham Young” and “The Mark of Zorro.” Later in the 1940s, Linda Stirling (born Louise Schultz) was queen of B-movie Western serials, playing a female version of Zorro in “Zorro’s Black Whip.”
In 1945, Omaha-born Ann Ronell’s song “Linda” from “The Story of G.I. Joe” was nominated for an Oscar.
Linda entered the top hundred baby names in 1936 and the top ten in 1940. In 1945 and 1946, it ranked second behind Mary.
In June 1946 “Night and Day,” with Cary Grant and Alexis Smith playing Cole and Linda Porter, was a box office smash.
Later in 1946, songwriter Jack Lawrence premiered still another song titled “Linda.” He named it after the young daughter of his friend Lee Eastman. (Fittingly, Linda Eastman later married Paul McCartney.) Two different records of Lawrence’s song “counting all the charms about Linda” were among the top 10 in March 1947.
Linda skyrocketed by 68 percent in 1947, an incredible rise for a name already in the top 10. Linda was the first name in 250 years to replace Mary at the top. When the spelling Lynda is added in, more than 100,000 girls (5.7 percent) were named Linda in both 1947 and 1948.
Linda stayed number one until 1953 and in the top 10 until 1966. In 2011, the 483 Lindas born ranked the name 592nd, its lowest in 150 years.
In Spanish, the word “linda” means “pretty” or “cute.” Many assume the name is from that word. Spanish and Mexican linguists, though, say that’s a pure coincidence.
Linda wasn’t accepted as an official name in Hispanic culture until recently. I know a woman named Linda by Mexican-American parents in 1948. Her Spanish-speaking priest in Los Angeles refused to accept it, baptizing her “Ermelinda” instead.
Linda Hunt’s short stature and powerful voice make her among the most recognizable Hollywood stars. Linda the name is similar — short, multitalented and universally known. Not bad for starting as a nickname about 200 years ago.