Happy birthday to Barbarella and Grace!
Jane Fonda, daughter of Omaha-raised movie star Henry Fonda (1905-82), turned 82 on Saturday. She became a star herself in the 1960s, partly through campy science-fiction film “Barbarella” (1968). Fonda won best actress Oscars for “Klute” (1971) and “Coming Home” (1978). Her long career continues in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” in which Fonda and Lily Tomlin play women whose ex-husbands both come out as gay and marry each other. Its fifth season starts Jan. 15.
Jane is an English feminine form of John, a biblical name from the Hebrew “Yahweh is gracious.”
In 1066, England’s Norman invaders brought two Old French feminine forms of John with them. Johanne became Joan, while Jehanne became Jane.
In medieval times, Jane was rare, while Joan was the third-most common name in England. Around 1450, Jane started to rise, especially among the upper classes.
Jane Seymour (1508-37) was Henry VIII’s third wife and mother of his heir, Edward VI. Fonda’s full name is Jane Seymour Fonda. Her mother, Frances Ford Seymour, was distantly related to Queen Jane.
Royal support helped Jane rise. After 1600, it was more popular than Joan.
Throughout the 19th century, Jane appealed to the British more than to Americans. In 1911, the census of England and Wales included 780,514 Janes. The 1910 American census had 191,665, though then the United States had 92 million residents to England and Wales’ 36 million.
In 1905, Jane ranked only 151st on Social Security’s baby name list. Then Americans noticed it.
Popular authors helped — most famously Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created Jane Porter, Tarzan’s love interest in “Tarzan of the Apes” (1912). Over nine sequels, Jane becomes Tarzan’s wife and a woman capable of holding her own in the African wilds. More than 50 Tarzan films have been made since 1918, most including Jane.
It’s probably no accident that Jane’s top rank of 35th came in 1946, when “The Outlaw,” Howard Hughes’ controversial film featuring the famously buxom Jane Russell (1921-2011) was released. Jane stayed among the top 50 through 1956, as musical star Jane Powell (born 1929) and 1948 Oscar winner Jane Wyman (1917-2007) joined Russell as top Hollywood draws.
As Jane started to fall off, television gave it a middle-aged image through actresses like Jane Wyatt (1910-2006), mother Margaret on “Father Knows Best” (1954-60), and characters like lovelorn secretary “Miss Jane” Hathaway (Nancy Kulp) on “The Beverly Hillbillies” (1962-71).
Perhaps because of negative reactions to her Vietnam War protests, Fonda’s film career didn’t reverse Jane’s slide, though there was a slight uptick in 1982, when her hugely successful workout videos appeared.
Jane’s lowest point came in 2006 at rank 477. Surprisingly, since then it’s risen, three decades before a 1940s name normally would. That may partly be linked to the increasing prominence of English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817). In 2007, the films “Becoming Jane Austen” (starring Anne Hathaway as the author) and “The Jane Austen Book Club” both appeared.
Television has reinforced the rise, with detective Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon) on “Rizzoli & Isles” (2010-16) and “Jane the Virgin” (2014-19), for which Gina Rodriguez won a Golden Globe playing a woman who becomes pregnant after mistakenly being artificially inseminated.
Jane ranked 291st in 2018. Whether or not it continues to climb, it is plain Jane won’t disappear.