Film stars Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and Nick Nolte were all born in Omaha. Yet another Omaha native that’s become a Hollywood star is Gabrielle Union, born 41 years ago today.
Gabrielle is the French feminine form of Gabriel, Hebrew for “man of God.”
St. Gabriel is the Bible’s most famous angel. In the Old Testament he appears to the prophet Daniel. In the New Testament he announces the birth of Jesus to his mother, Mary.
Gabriel was regularly used in medieval England. Families with the last name Gabriel (like singer Peter Gabriel’s) had ancestors named after the saint. Those ancestors could have been men or women. Other male saint’s names like Nicholas and Philip were used for girls in medieval England, so this wasn’t unusual.
By 1538, when parish records began, Gabriel had died out as a girl’s name, though it continued in use for boys.
Gabrielle meanwhile was regularly used for women in France. Gabrielle d’Estrées (1573-1599) was the beloved mistress of King Henry IV of France. Henry asked the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to Queen Marguerite so he could marry her.
Alas, Gabrielle died in childbirth before the annulment was granted. A grief-stricken Henry gave her a queen’s funeral.
In the 1850 United States census, the first to list all residents by name, there were over 4,000 men and boys named Gabriel. There were only 21 women named Gabrielle. Ten were born in French-settled Louisiana, and four others in France itself. The same census found 44 women named with the Spanish form Gabriela and 306 with the Italian or Latin Gabriella.
Though immigration increased all these names somewhat over the next century, they remained rare. In the middle of the twentieth century they were literally dying out. In the 1940 census, there were only 1,503 Gabrielles, 902 Gabrielas and 778 Gabriellas.
Around 1950 American parents began to discover Gabrielle. One reason was the fame of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971), the French fashion designer and perfume tycoon who listed by “Time” magazine among the hundred most influential people of the twentieth century.
Gabrielle also fit in with the fashions of the time, rising along with similar French names like Michelle and Danielle.
Gabrielle first entered the top 1,000 names in 1957. By 1972, when Gabrielle Union was born, it was among the top 500.
Gabrielle rose slowly until the Hollywood feedback loop kicked in.
In February 1987, soap opera “One Life to Live” introduced Gabrielle Medina, played by actress Fiona Hutchinson. The daughter of a drug lord who’s tricked into giving up her baby, Gabrielle quickly became a very popular character. Even though the character was from Argentina, screenwriters gave her the French name Gabrielle rather than Spanish Gabriela — undoubtedly because French names were fashionable in 1987. In 1988 the name soared 64 percent — and 92 ranks — to 174th, by far its biggest rise ever.
In 1989 fashion model and beach volleyball champion Gabrielle Reece was named one of the world’s five most beautiful women by “Elle” magazine. In 1990, Gabrielle ranked among the top 100 for the first time.
The name’s rise then slowed until 1994. Then British actress Gabrielle Anwar, famous for dancing the tango with Al Pacino in 1992’s “Scent of a Woman,” was named one of the world’s 50 most beautiful persons by “People.” The number of Gabrielles born rose 26 percent.
Finally, in 1995 syndicated television hit “Xena: Warrior Princess” began, co-starring actress Renee O’Connor as Gabrielle, a Greek peasant girl who’s Xena’s protégé and best friend. Giving an ancient Greek a French name derived from Hebrew was one of the oddest choices screenwriters ever made. But It didn’t hurt the name, which reached its highest rank of 46th in 1999.
Since 1999 Gabrielle has steadily dropped, ranking only 139th in 2012. French forms are now out of style and Italian ones are in. Gabriella, closer to other modern fashions like Isabella, has taken over, ranking 47th last year.
Her name’s drop in popularity hasn’t hurt Gabrielle Union’s career. Since her first big role in the cheerleading film “Bring It On” in 2000, her fame has steadily advanced. In January, she’ll star in “Being Mary Jane” on BET, a drama where she plays a successful talk show host. Though it may be too late for her to revive the name’s use, her image will influence how people think of Gabrielles for years to come.