Remember Trixie Delight, exotic dancer in “Paper Moon”? Lili von Shtupp, comic seductress in “Blazing Saddles”? Pauline Fox, eccentric neighbor on “Cosby”?
Madeline is the English form of the French Madeleine, itself from Magdalene. Magdalene means “from Magdala,” a Palestinian place name from the Hebrew “migdal,” or high tower.
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Magdalene became a woman’s name through Mary Magdalene. In the Christian Bible, Jesus is said to have cast seven devils out of her. She’s also the first one to see Jesus after His resurrection.
Early Christians identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke’s gospel and assumed she was a reformed prostitute.
In medieval England, Madeline was pronounced “Maudlin,” Because paintings of Mary Magdalene showed her weeping, “maudlin” came to mean “annoyingly sentimental.”
The name remained rare until 1820, when romantic poet John Keats made Madeline the heroine of “The Eve of St. Agnes.” There Madeline, in love with her family’s enemy Porphyro, awakes from dreaming of him to find he’s crept into her bedroom to elope.
Alfred Lord Tennyson followed in 1830 with “Madeline,” in which the poet complains that he never knows if “ever varying Madeline” will smile or frown at his advances.
What’s really ever varying about Madeline is its pronunciation. Does the last syllable rhyme with line, lean or Lynn? (If French spelling Madeleine is used, it can also be lane or Len.)
Keats’ poem rhymes Madeline with both “divine” and “unseen,” while Tennyson rhymes it with “thine.” Most Victorians probably used the “line” pronunciation.
Some , though, preferred “Lynn.” Madelyn first occurs as an alternative spelling in the United States census in 1880, when there were three, along with 1,819 Madelines, 1,033 Madalines and 188 Madeleines.
In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby name lists begin, Madeline, at 347th, was the only spelling in the top thousand. In 1914, Madeline peaked at 116th. Madelyn ranked 349th, with Madeleine, Madaline, Madelyn and Madelene also well used.
In 1942, when Kahn was born, Madeline ranked 177th, and most Americans rhymed that spelling with “Lynn.” The name bottomed out in 1980 at 721st.
Perhaps inspired by Kahn’s fame, creative parents revived Madeline in the early 1980s. Then television’s “Moonlighting” premiered in March 1985, with Cybill Shepherd playing detective Madelyn “Maddie” Hayes. Madeline soared 123 percent to rank 291st in 1986 — with Madeleine and Madelyn both back in the top thousand for the first time in decades. In 1994, Madeline entered the top 50.
Meanwhile, back in 1939, Ludwig Bemelmans published popular children’s book “Madeline.” Bemelmans named the character after his wife, Madeleine, but used the “Madeline” spelling because it was easier to rhyme. All seven Madeline books begin, “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. ... The smallest one was Madeline.”
Between 1988 and 2001, animated television versions of “Madeline” appeared. The show’s catchy songs cemented the “line” pronunciation in the minds of many child viewers.
Most parents who give the name to daughters, though, still prefer it to rhyme with “Lynn.” So in 2009, Madelyn became the most common spelling.
In 2014, the 4,289 newborn Madelyns ranked that spelling 59th; the 3,409 Madelines were 89th. Madeleine, Madilyn, Madelynn, Madilynn, Madalyn and Madalynn were all in the top thousand. With all versions combined, 13,066 Madelyns arrived in 2014, ranking the name 12th.
The huge crop of Madelines born since “Moonlighting” is starting to yield famous examples. One of the first, Madeline Zima (born September 1985), played Gracie on “The Nanny” and Mia Lewis on “Californication.” No matter how it’s spelled or pronounced, we’ll be talking about multiple Madelines for decades to come.
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“Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The quote is from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, born 157 years ago today.