How much do you love Lucy?
Lucille Ball, arguably America’s most famous television star, was born 102 years ago today. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists Ball among the “100 most influential women of all time.”
Lucia was an ancient Roman name meaning “light.” Lucilla was a pet form meaning “little Lucia.”
Lucy is Lucia’s traditional English form. Many assume Lucy was originally just a nickname for Lucille, but actually it’s the other way around.
Two different Italian saints martyred around 260 were named Lucilla. One was a blind girl whose sight was restored by Pope Stephen I. The other Lucilla was among 23 Christians martyred together during the reign of Emperor Gallienus. Nothing else is really known about them, but later a legend developed around Lucilla along with her fellow martyrs Flora and Eugene.
In the legend, Eugene is a barbarian king who kidnaps beautiful virgins Flora and Lucilla. They convert him, and all three return to Rome for martyrdom.
This tale made Lucilla popular in Tuscany, where the town of Santa Fiora holds an annual festival honoring Flora and Lucilla. Renaissance artists in Italy and Spain featured the story in paintings.
By 1700, Lucile was regularly used in France. It was still almost unknown in England and its colonies, even though Lucy had been a common English name for centuries.
Lucille and Lucile were introduced to the English-speaking world by the same British author. Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) was both a prominent English politician and a hugely popular novelist.
Today, Bulwer-Lytton’s writing is laughed at. The annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest gives a prize for writing the silliest florid prose in the style of his 1830 novel “Paul Clifford.” That novel starts out “It was a dark and stormy night,” a literary cliche now famous as the opening line of Snoopy’s novel in “Peanuts.”
But 19th century readers disagreed. Bulwer-Lytton’s books were best-sellers during his lifetime. One of his most popular, “The Pilgrims of the Rhine,” was a short story collection including “The Maid of Malines.”
In that tale, Lucille falls in love with blind soldier Eugene. They become engaged, and Eugene’s sight is restored after Lucille prays in a cathedral. Eugene then finds Lucille’s cousin Julie much prettier and marries her instead. Years later, Eugene, now a widower and blind again, returns and marries Lucille after all.
In 1836, William Bayle Bernard turned this story into the play “Lucille,” performed in many American cities.
When Bulwer-Lytton wrote poetry, he used the pen name “Owen Meredith.” The most famous Meredith book was “Lucile,” a novel entirely in verse, published in 1860.
Beautiful Lucile de Nevers is courted by both Lord Alfred Hargrave and the Duke of Luvois. Though she loves Alfred, she ends up marrying neither and becomes a nun. Years later, she plays matchmaker between Alfred’s son and the Duke’s niece.
Though not popular in England, “Lucile” was a huge hit in the United States. On his Web page “The Lucile Project,” retired University of Iowa librarian Sidney Huttner lists over 2,000 different editions put out by nearly 100 American publishers between 1860 and 1938.
“Lucile” was one of the most popular “gift books” of the late 19th century, produced in beautiful bindings and displayed prominently in Victorian parlors all over America.
Just like the book, the name Lucille was a hit in America but never in England.
In the 1850 United States census, there were only 47 women named Lucile or Lucille, most descendants of French settlers in Louisiana or Missouri.
Fifty years later, the 1900 census found 17,299 Luciles and 8,630 Lucilles, the more common spelling reflecting the influence of that gift book. Social Security’s yearly baby name lists, though, show Lucille took over as the more common spelling for newborns in 1881.
Lucile peaked at 115th in 1908. Lucille went on rising until 1919, when it topped out at 27th. If the two spellings were counted together in 1919, the combined total of 9,301 ranks 19th.
The name’s peak coincided with the career of the most famous Lucille before Lucille Ball. Lucille Mulhall (1885-1940), known as “Queen of the Saddle,” was the first woman to compete in rodeo steer-roping events against men. She had her own Wild West rodeo troupe between 1913 and 1922.
Between 1903 and 1952, Lucille was more common than Lucy on American birth certificates. The huge fame Lucille Ball gained when “I Love Lucy” premiered in October 1951 helped the name Lucy a lot more than Lucille. During the show’s seven year prime-time run, Lucy fell only from 203rd to 227th, while Lucille dropped from 198th to 295th.
Lucille’s popularity continued to drop rapidly until it left the top 1,000 in 1977. That same year, country singer Kenny Rogers became a solo star with the hit song “Lucille.” Written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum, its famous refrain — “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille/With four hungry children and a crop in the field” — didn’t encourage parents to give the name to babies.
Lucy, though, started to increase in use again for American girls around 1980. It has steadily risen to rank 66th in 2012.
Lucille’s been rebooted by Lucy’s rise. It re-entered the top thousand for girls in 2003 and has risen quickly to 394th place in 2012, when 780 were born. 21st century parents are loving both Lucy and Lucille once again.