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Evans: Though of German origins, the name Irma really took off in France

Evans: Though of German origins, the name Irma really took off in France

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Irma’s still cooking.

The ninth edition of “Joy of Cooking” comes out Tuesday. Its first edition was privately published by author Irma S. Rombauer (1877-1962) in 1931.

Though a capable cook, Rombauer wasn’t a culinary enthusiast. After her husband’s sudden death, she astonished friends by writing a cookbook to support herself. Simple recipes combined with witty personal anecdotes made “Joy” a mainstay of American kitchens. More than 20 million copies have been sold. The ninth edition is edited by Rombauer’s grandsons Ethan and John Becker, along with John’s wife, Megan Scott.

Irma is a short form of Germanic names starting with “ermen,” meaning “whole” or “all.” Emma was originally a Norman French form of the same name.

Several medieval saints in England and Germany had “ermen” names. Sixth-century forest hermit St. Ermelinde (“whole-soft”) is venerated in Belgium. St. Irmgard (“whole-enclosure”) of Chiemsee (830-866) was a great-granddaughter of Charlemagne who became an abbess. St. Ermenburga (“whole-fortress”) was a Queen of Mercia in England who founded a nunnery.

Unlike Emma, Irma wasn’t used as a name in its own right until around 1700. Though this began in Germany, Irma’s first big success came in France.

In 1799, French author Élisabeth Guénard published “Irma, or The Misfortunes of a Young Orphan.” Though in the novel Irma is a princess of India, she was obviously based on Marie-Thérèse, the only surviving child of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, beheaded in the Revolution six years before. The novel was wildly popular in France, going through 10 editions by 1816.

Many girls were named after Guénard’s heroine. In the 1850 United States census, 136 of the 174 Irmas were born either in French-speaking Louisiana or France itself.

It took another two generations before Irma was popular with Germans. Irma Rombauer’s parents were German immigrants to St. Louis.

When Social Security’s yearly baby names list began in 1880, spellings Erma and Irma were equally popular. At the name’s peak in 1911, Erma ranked 138th and Irma 137th. Their combined total would have ranked 81st. It wasn’t until 1940 that Erma fell definitely behind.

Homemaker humorist Erma Bombeck (1927-1996) is probably the most famous person with the “E” spelling, though gospel singer Erma Franklin (1938-2002), older sister of Aretha, is also well-known.

Irma retained popularity in Latin America and with Hispanic Americans longer than with other ethnic groups. One example is Irma Gonzalez (born 1948), who in 2005 was the first Mexican American woman appointed as a federal judge.

The hit film “Irma La Douce” (1963) featured Shirley MacLaine as a prostitute with a heart of gold. Her profession probably didn’t inspire many namesakes.

Merle Haggard’s 1972 song “Irma Jackson,” the first country ballad about an interracial relationship, did cause a minor upswing in Irma in 1973, but even that song couldn’t reverse its slide.

The name bottomed out in 2013, when only 17 Ermas and 48 Irmas were born. Since then, it’s begun to inch up. Avant-garde young parents now can see Irma as a “different but not too different” alternative for Emma. In 2017, 21 Ermas and 70 Irmas arrived.

Irma took a sudden drop back to 52 births in 2018, probably due to negative publicity surrounding 2017’s Hurricane Irma. That likely will be short-lived. I expect Irma to be cooking with gas again by 2025.

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Legends about the Seth of the Bible were featured in “Cursor Mundi,” a poem written in northern England around 1300. Perhaps that’s why Seth was used by several prominent Yorkshire families by 1450, a century before the Reformation created a general fashion for Old Testament names.

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