The film “Race,” starring Stephan James as Jesse Owens (1913-1980), the black American who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, opens Friday.
Jesse’s the English form of Hebrew Yishai, “gift.” Jesse was the father of David, the shepherd boy who became king of Israel.
The New Testament traces Jesus’ family back to David and Jesse. Many medieval cathedrals had stained-glass “Trees of Jesse” showing Jesus’ ancestry.
Despite that, medieval English boys weren’t named Jesse. (Those with the surname Jessey had ancestors who made jesses, the leather strips restraining hunting hawks.)
After 1600, Protestants in England and its colonies took up Jesse and other Old Testament names. In 1676, Jesse Wharton was royal governor of Maryland. Jesse was one of the few names popular in the South as well as New England.
Meanwhile, by 1670, the girl’s name Jessie was created in Scotland as a pet form of Jean or Janet. The reason’s obscure; probably Scots found it cool for Jean’s nickname to rhyme with Bessie (from Elizabeth).
Scottish immigrants brought Jessie to the United States. The 1850 census found 495 women named Jessie — 19 percent born in Scotland at a time when only 0.2 percent of all Americans were.
In 1850, 39,855 men were named Jesse. During Victorian times, the male name rose and the female name boomed. In 1930, the census found 218,637 female Jessies and 124,598 male Jesses.
Spellings were confused from the start: 1930 also had 16,938 female Jesses and 95,482 male Jessies.
Missouri outlaw Jesse James (1847-1882) is the most famous Jesse. The bank robber with the best press in history, James is still a pop culture icon.
The year James was killed, Jesse ranked 26th on Social Security’s yearly baby name list. Jessie was 37th for girls. Both then slowly went out of style.
In the late 1930s, Jesse Owens caused a brief upswing in his name. Ironically, Jesse was his nickname. Born James Cleveland Owens in Alabama in 1913, his family called him “J.C.” He moved at age 7 to Ohio, where a teacher misheard his name as “Jesse,” and the mistake stuck.
Jesse bottomed out at 150th in 1964. The fashion for names like Jason and Joshua then revived it. Its peak rank, 37th, came in 1981, the year after the Western “The Long Riders” featured James and Stacy Keach as Jesse and Frank James, and Carly Simon’s song “Jesse,” about returning to a former boyfriend over friends’ objections, was a hit.
In 1987, Jesse was ranked 55th. It rebounded a bit while John Stamos starred on “Full House.” At first his character was Jesse Cochran. Stamos, the show’s breakout star, convinced producers to change Cochran to Katsopolis to fit his Greek heritage. Later it was explained his real first name was Hermes, and he had adopted Jesse as a teen trying to be cool.
Jesse dropped to 174th in 2014, its lowest rank ever.
Jessie had a short uptick for girls in 1965 when nurse Jessie Brewer (Emily McLaughlin) was introduced on the soap “General Hospital.” It bottomed out at 554th in 1970, rebounding when Jessica became hugely popular. Though they’re originally unrelated, many now assume Jessie is short for Jessica.
Jessie ranked 226th in 1994. It fell to 688th in 2011, but then surged to 587th in 2014. “Jessie,” the Disney Channel show where Debby Ryan plays a small-town Texas girl who’s nanny for a wealthy multiethnic New York family, surely caused that.
Civil rights leader Jackson (born 1941) and wrestler-politician Ventura (1951) are famous Jesses. Baseball pitcher Orosco (1957) holds the major league record for pitching appearances.
Actors Eisenberg (1983), Tyler Ferguson (1975), L. Martin (1969) and Metcalfe (1978) are Jesses born during its recent boom.
Country singer Jessie James Decker (1988) and Tony-winning actress Jessie Mueller (1983) are well-known, but today’s most famous woman with the name is opera singer Jessye Norman (1945).
These and other Jesses and Jessies will keep the name winning gold for decades.
Cleveland Evans is a Bellevue University psychology professor and author of “The Great Big Book of Baby Names.”