Monday, August 19, 2013

Shirley You Jest!

As I have mentioned in another post, my mother passed away last year. Her name was Shirley. In the last couple of years before she passed I managed to uncover some of the history behind her name.

The basic meaning of her name is "from Shirley, England." Boooooorrrrrrrrring! Oh, but there is so much more to this story than that. To get a bit more concrete than that, it is supposed to mean "bright glade" or "place of hope." Shirley was originally a man's name and a surname.

Mum always struggled to be hopeful in the face of some pretty tall odds - two failed marriages, lifelong health issues, rape, a baby out of wedlock, and dealing with me and my issues. She tried to live up to the name given to her.

Mum loved literature, dabbled with being a writer, a dream that she passed along to me. I think it was in the genes. I don't remember her doing much writing when I was little, but I grew up in a household lined with hundreds of books. Mum, Dad, and I were all avid readers.

She was pleased when I discovered the history behind how she came to be named Shirley. Back in 1849 Charlotte Bronte (author of Jane Eyre) published a book entitled "Shirley." Going against convention, Bronte had given her strong female character a man's name. While the book is all but forgotten by most people these days, it was a best seller back then and forever changed the gender association of the name.
Lovers of the book began to name their girls Shirley instead of their boys.

The association between my mother and the literary Shirley does not stop there. The Shirley in the book is concerned for the poor and the working class during an economic depression following the end of the Napoleonic wars. She becomes involved, after a fashion, in the dealings of labor and the rights of workers. My Shirley, after her divorce from my father and return to the workforce, became first a union steward and later the president of her union's local.

Mum was impressed with the likeness and I gave her a copy of the book for Christmas a couple of years ago. I don't think she ever had the chance to read it. It now sits in my stack of books to be read. I will one day get to it and remember Mum with every word.

In a twist of fate she named her daughter (me) with a name that also used to be a man's name. If you don't believe me, go back and read Little Women. Back in the day Laurie was short for Laurence.

Her name also became a part of one of the most famous running jokes in any movie. In the movie Airplane people say to Leslie Nielsen's character "surely you jest!" He would look at them with a deadpan face and reply, "No. And please don't call me Shirley." Leslie is another name that is slowly making the transition from male to female.

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