The title character in “Emma” (1996). Viola in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998). Virginia “Pepper” Potts in seven Marvel films, from “Iron Man” (2008) to “Avengers: Endgame” (2019).
Gwyneth Paltrow, who played them all — winning a Best Actress Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love” — turns 47 on Friday.
Paltrow’s mother, actress Blythe Danner, chose Gwyneth because she wanted a Welsh name to link with Blythe, which she’d wrongly been told was Welsh. Blythe is actually English, but Gwyneth is really Welsh.
Most experts believe Gwyneth is an alteration of Welsh place name Gwynedd. The kingdom of Gwynedd was created in northwestern Wales around 450. After the Romans abandoned Wales around 383, Irish raiders settled there. Gwynedd is thought to be a Welsh form of either Irish “fían” (warrior band) or “Féni” (Irish people).
Native Welsh speakers defeated the Irish to found the kingdom. Then, in the ninth century, Gwynedd’s King Rhodri the Great united most of Wales under his rule.
Though Rhodri divided his kingdom among his sons after his death, Welsh princes attempting to unite Wales all claimed descent from Rhodri. After the English conquest in 1283, many Welsh continued to see Gwynedd’s royal family as their rightful rulers. In 1770, a Welsh patriotic society was called the Gwyneddigion.
The letters “th” represent two different sounds in English. Teeth/teethe and Ethan/heathen contrast the two sounds. In Welsh, the former is spelled “th” and the latter “dd.” The final syllable of “Gwynedd” sounds like the middle of “weather.”
It was natural for British parents to respell Gwynedd with “th” when giving the name to a daughter, ending it with the same sound as the familiar Elizabeth and Edith.
The first Gwyneth in the British census is Gwyneth Stonestreet, daughter of London clergyman George Stonestreet, born in 1830. Why the Stonestreets chose Gwyneth is a mystery, but Welsh nationalists soon began using it.
The name got a big boost in 1917 from Edith Nepean’s novel “Gwyneth of the Welsh Hills.” In 1921, this became a silent film starring Madge Stuart as Gwyneth, making the name known throughout Britain.
The first Gwyneth in the United States census was Gwyneth Williams, born in Rockland County, New York, in 1856 to Welsh immigrants David and Mary. Her younger sister was the first American-born Gladys.
The two most famous British Gwyneths are both named Jones. Operatic soprano Gwyneth Jones (born 1936) became Dame Gwyneth in 1986. Science-fiction writer Gwyneth Jones (born 1952) won the Tiptree Award for the novel “White Queen” in 1991.
Despite the Joneses, Gwyneth remained exceedingly rare in the United States before Paltrow’s fame. Only 15 American Gywneths were born in 1995. In 1999, after Paltrow’s Oscar, 178 arrived.
Still, Paltrow has only managed to move her name from “super-rare” to “rare”. It’s only been among the top thousand three times, in 2004, 2011, and 2013 — the latest coming after “The Avengers,” one of her biggest box-office hits. In 2018, 176 Gwyneths were born, the fewest since 1998.
It’s probable Gwyneth, like Madonna, is too identified with a single celebrity for most parents to be comfortable giving it. Perhaps in another 50 years, it can boom in America like Ava has recently. Until then, it’ll remain a rare bit of Welsh culture on this side of the Atlantic.