December 13, 2013

Fanny, Fannie, and the Frances Family of Names

Frances ~ Frenchman ~ English

A day or two ago, I thought I'd take a ride
And soon, Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side,
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot.
Miss Fanny Bright must have been a hot date back in the day! The lyrics of the second verse to Jingle Bells is a small reminder of how prevalent and, well, normal the name Fanny used to be. I was reminded of this sweet little nickname (that took an interesting turn) while singing the song with my 9-month-old, and I just had to do a little research. Of course.

I looked around online to confirm the lyrics of Jingle Bells, especially after finding most sources spelling Miss Fannie's name as Fanny. An article in Wikipedia cleared this up for me—apparently the original spelling was Fannie, not Fanny. It makes perfect sense when you look at the popularity of the names.

Fannie and Fanny
Fannie is a short form of the name Frances. Here's how its popularity looks, using a screenshot from the Baby Name Wizard's Expert Name Voyager.

Keep in mind that this reflects the name on the birth certificate—it doesn't take into account the multitude of girls who were named Frances but were given the nickname Fannie. Just imagine how popular this little Victorian name was in the 1800s when you combine the two spellings and the unknown number of girls who went by Fannie informally.

So, what happened to the beloved names Fanny and Fannie? I think we can all guess—somewhere along the line fanny, and the plural fannies, became slang for a person's bottom, or in Great Britain, female genitalia. Here's what Google tells me when I look for a definition of fanny:

You can probably start to see what happened when you compare the Baby Name Wizard graphs with this graph of the slang term. The names Fanny and Fannie were SO popular in the 1800s that they came to be associated with a female in general, and took a turn for the vulgar from there. Miss Fannie Bright was just a good example of a fashionable girl of the 1850s, when Jingle Bells was written.

Because Fannie and Fanny used to be so popular, there are lots of famous ladies from the 1800s who bore the name. Some have better associations than others, but, sadly, the slang terms trump them all. Fanny would be right on par with Victorian-revival nicknames like Hattie, Winnie, Addie, Lottie, Nellie, and Sadie, except for its associations. While it's not likely that anyone would use Fanny or Fannie today, its original forms are far from out of the picture.

The name Frances means "French" or "Frenchman" and came about as the feminine form of Francis in the 17th century, long after St. Francis of Assisi had already established the name. The feminine forms did not become the classic that Francis did, perhaps because of the nickname Fanny. Today Frances feels old-fashioned but not completely outdated. It has stayed in the top 1,000 names for girls. The more I think about this name, the more enamored I am with it.

This is the most popular feminine variation of Francis in the US today. It's the Italian form and is a little bit more attractive to our ears, in the vein of Bianca or even (non-Italian) names like Rebecca and Jessica. Francesca has been ranked in the high 400s for the past six years. It has a lovely ring to it and a sophisticated feel.

Pope Francis and Name Popularity
I'm going to touch on a subject that everyone is talking about: Pope Francis. The world is enamored with him, and here's just one article that explains why. He's Time's Person of the Year, and likely the Baby Name Wizard's Name of the Year.

The male name Francis is pronounced the same as the feminine spelling, Frances. The Pope's popularity could affect every variation of the name, but I really wanted to talk about the feminine side. (Back to male names next time, I promise!)

Will we see a bump in the use of Francis and all its forms for 2013? I bet we will. Catholic parents and plenty of others are inspired by the pope, and hearing his name so often in the news doesn't hurt matters. Here's one article that claims parents are naming their sons after the pope, however, the evidence is one couple who used Francis as a middle name for their son, and another mom who says she's "open" to using the name. Not convincing, but a fun story nonetheless! And I agree with the thought behind the article—people are definitely intrigued by the name Francis and are considering using it in some way.

Feminine Variations
Here's a look at the feminine variations and short forms of Francis.
  • Fanny, Fannie
  • Fanya
  • Fran, Frannie, Franny
  • Franca
  • France
  • Francene, Francine
  • Frances
  • Francesca
  • Francie
  • Francois
What do you think of the feminine forms of Francis? Are they ready for a little more popularity? What are your favorite variations?


  1. Great post! I would add Francie to the last list! It's been one of my favorite name and nickname combos ever since reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in high school.

  2. Of course! Thanks for mentioning it. I was thinking of Francie as well but managed to miss it in my list. It's adorable!

  3. I think they are ready for more popularity & my fave version is Francesca.


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