Thoughts on Jemima?

The first time I ever heard the name Jemima was when I was a little girl, in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I fell in love with it, and loved it for years ... and only as a late teen/adult did I hear of the negative connotation it carries in the U.S.

It's such a disappointment to me that it seems totally off the table as an option for American parents, and I admit I'm envious of British parents, who seem to use it fairly regularly. It's Biblical, it's got great meaning (dove) and great nicknames (Jemma, Jem, et al.), it's literary (Dickens), it's international, and it's got an incredible sound to my ear. Jemima has all the qualities I look for in a name.

What do you all think? Is there any chance the tide will turn for Jemima in America? Or is the name simply unusable here, for now and for the foreseeable future?

Replies

1
June 16, 2012 11:25 PM

I feel the same way you do. A gorgeous name with an unpleasant connotation, despite all the other positive ones. I think the only way for it to turn is for there to be some new association, whether that comes in the form of a new young celebrity (Jemima Kirke of the HBO show Girls might fit this bill in the next few years), a celebrity baby, or a character in a blockbuster movie/book series. Basically something to reframe it in the American pop culture conciousness is necessary.

There's also the matter of American parents just being brave enough to say "screw it" and naming their daughters Jemima anyway. It would have to take parents with a lot of nerve to do that, people who are accustomed flouting the status quo. Then the name could filter in through the fringes,

2
June 17, 2012 2:00 AM

My primary and first association with the name Jemima is pancake syrup. All the other baggage trails about a mile or so behind.

3
June 17, 2012 11:33 PM

I"m Australian and had never heard of the issues with the name Jemima until I started posting on this board. It's just another name here. I don't think I've known that many Jemimas though. Gemma/Jemma seems much more common. 

4
By mk
June 18, 2012 12:39 PM

I don't think it helps that it's used as a name of a pancake syrup either, since it keeps the connotation in people's minds (at least mine). I admit that it throws me a bit when I hear someone with that name.

I like Gemma much better anyway.

5
By PJ
June 19, 2012 8:10 PM

I think it's possible as time weakens the negative connotations. I met a (white) baby named Amos recently and I know several baby name books have mentioned it as being almost unusable because of Amos N' Andy.  It is also a Biblical name that seems to fit current trends, kind of an alternative to Milo and the like. So I think there may be hope for Jemima if you live in an adventurous naming community.

 

But, I guess you would also have to be prepared that some people of an earlier generation may have a hard time getting used to it.

6
June 25, 2012 2:50 PM

The only association I have is the syrup, which doesn't seem so bad to me. What am I missing?

Elle

PS: Love this name

8
June 26, 2012 7:29 AM

Thanks, Ilikemints:

That does explain a lot, but I say, oh so politely, screw it--the name is beautiful and should be reclaimed, rescued even from this connotation.

Elle

 

9
June 26, 2012 9:07 AM

Oh, I campletely agree with you- and rescue is the perfect word!

10
By EVie
June 25, 2012 4:37 PM

I've been thinking about this on and off since the original post went up. The link that ilikemints provided above is a really good summary of the mammy archetype and why the name Jemima has some unpleasant associations. I would guess that it's a name that will never be used much in the African-American community, and I totally understand why. However... the whole reason the name is controversial is because it's linked to this one particular racial stereotype. Other than that, there's nothing problematic in the name or its meaning. So I wonder—if the name were to be used in a way that runs totally against the stereotype (like for a white or Asian child, for example), could it possibly be offensive to anyone? If anything, I would think that divorcing the name from the racist imagery would be a step in the direction of dismantling the stereotype itself. 

I think it's also worth noting that Jemima is a totally useable name in the U.K., and trans-Atlantic cultural connectivity is on the rise. Jemima Kirke is a great example of the type of influence that could help to mute the Mammy associations. I definitely don't think Mammy when I see or read about Jemima Kirke—I think lovely and fashionable English girl with a cool name :)

Nationally, the numbers for combined Jemima + Jemimah have been creeping upward very slowly. In the 70s it was mostly in the single digits/low teens, in the 1980s mostly in the lower teens; in the 1990s it was still in the teens, but popped up to 20s and even low 30s a couple of times; in the 2000s it's been much higher, with a peak of 65 in 2009 and a median of 45. In 2010 and 2011 it was at 51 and 55, respectively.

Some state usage numbers for Jemima/Jemimah:

  • California (5 in 1975, 6 in 2000, 5 in 2004, 5 in 2006, 5 in 2007, 9 in 2009)
  • Florida (5 in 2000, 8 in 2003, 6 in 2004, 5 in 2006, 5 in 2008, 8 in 2000, 5 in 2010)
  • New York (6 in 2005, 5 in 2009)
  • Pennsylvania (5 in 1996, 5 in 2003)
  • Texas (5 in 1996, 5 in 2003, 5 in 2006)

The SSA doesn't release the numbers for 4 or fewer occurrences, so there are a few more floating around the rest of the country). I expected to see New York and California, but was surprised to see the other states. Then I realized that California, Texas, New York and Florida are the four most populous states, and Pennsylvania is #6—so all this really tells us is that rare names show up more frequently where there are more people. Not terribly enlightening.

11
By hwar
June 25, 2012 8:59 PM

I think as a name without context it's really great. The context is still problematic for me personally, although I do think it is softening with time.  As Jemimas bleed over from the UK and Australia, new associations will form with the name that will dilute the racial stereotype.  I think it's a name like Delilah, where even the great sound and excellent nickname possibilities haven't erased the cultural history of the name, though. Delilah is escaping its Biblical mold now because of its popular sound, and maybe Jemima will too, with a bit more time. 

12
By Guest (not verified)
June 26, 2012 4:22 PM

My name is Jemima and I think it is a very special Victorian name. It is very unique and I have never met any one called Jemima. I think the name Jemima is very special and should be rare but a bit more common.  A great nickname I think is Mima! 

These thoughs might just be because I am called Jemima, but I dont know!

13
July 3, 2012 5:56 PM

I'm old enough (barely) to have grown up with the offensive image of Aunt Jemima on my syrup bottles and still recoil at the thought of using this name (but then, we sang "Carry Me Back to Ol' Virginny" in early elementary school and the lyrics are unbelievably racist, and this was in the early 70s!). But I recognize that for my much younger siblings, this isn't an issue at all. Aunt Jemima's image had been updated significantly by the time they were born, some 14 years after me. I'm guessing the name will come back in the US, but the connotation of the syrup (and not the racial stereotyping) will hold it back for a while longer. If people would only stop putting that corn syrup crap on their pancakes, we'd be much closer to a resurgence of Jemima as a given name!

14
July 6, 2012 12:55 AM

I was born in 86 and I think of the racial stereotype and the pancake syrup. I would cringe if I heard of a baby with this name.

15
By Guest (not verified)
July 18, 2012 3:38 PM

I am newly pregnant with my first child and Jemima has been my absolute favorite name for years. I live in Georgia and people in my generation think of the pancake syrup association first, but then agree that it is a beautiful name. My 69 year old Aunt, however, suggested that I let HER name my children appropriately. I think it is a fabulous name and ready to be brought back.

16
July 18, 2012 8:35 PM

i only associated it with the pancake syrup, and i was born in the70's. however,  i also realized with horror, recently that the word 'uppity' can be considered racially derrogatory. i always thought it meant snobby, but guess i was in some uninformed bubble. i do believe that if people in the states begin using the name Jemima with some frequency, that perhaps the racial perception will drop off. wouldn't that be lovely? we can give it a new, desirable meaning. just like how there are Delilahs now and even Jezebels being named, not as often, but the name being used can rid itself of the old connotation.

17
July 20, 2012 2:04 PM

Would you name your son Adolf?  Seems like the name Jemima could have the same effect.  Both names are perfectly fine but run the risk of bad connotations.

18
October 5, 2019 9:57 PM

I didn’t know that Jemima was considered unusable in the US. Being Canadian, I’m familiar with Aunt Jemima and can understand why the logo would be offensive. But seeing the name compared to Adolf is a surprise to me. Maybe Canada is more in line with the UK on this one? Not that it’s a common name here but I don’t think you’d receive any backlash for naming your child this. My main association with Jemima, or at least equal association, is the Beatrix Potter character Jemima Puddle-duck. On a side note, my mom read this book to us as kids and I vividly remember her pronouncing it like “JEM-i-ma” with emphasis on the first syllable and a short “i” in the middle. I’m assuming this was just her being unfamiliar with the name and no one else has heard this pronunciation before? I sometimes find myself defaulting to that pronunciation by accident!

(Hope no one minds me bringing up such an old thread!)