Etymology & Historical Origin of the Baby Name Jemima
Jemima is an ancient Hebrew name, borne from the Bible as the eldest daughter of Job. She is mentioned only fleetingly in Job 42:13-15 (when the Lord restored the prosperity of Job): “And he had seven sons and three daughters, of whom he called the first Jemima, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land no other women were as beautiful as the daughters of Job; and their father gave them an inheritance among their brethren.” Revival of this obscure Biblical name was owed to the Puritans after the Protestant Reformation in the early 18th century, and it was they who brought this unusual name to the New World colonies in America. The Puritans had a knack for rediscovering little-known names from the Bible – it was their way of showing humility before God. The Hebrew name Ymiymah (ימימה) either means “dove” or “bright of day”. Unfortunately for Jemima, the name was tarnished forever in the United States thanks to Aunt Jemima (a brand of breakfast foods introduced in the late 1880s). The character of Aunt Jemima was based on a stereotypical “mammy”-like southern kerchief-wearing house servant, and the food brand featured distasteful slogans such as “I’s in town, Honey!” For obvious reasons, African-Americans have been highly offended by the reinforcement of these minstrel (i.e., “black face”) type vaudevillian characters, and over time the Aunt Jemima character has been recreated by the Quaker Oats Company into a middle-class Black woman with pearl earrings and a natural afro. Still, in the United States, Jemima is a name forever associated with racism and as a result is never used. Because Jemima doesn’t carry the same negative connotations in England as it does in America, it is actually quite familiar in Britain. It’s the name of a Beatrix Potter character (Jemima Puddle-Duck); the Pott’s family daughter in Ian Fleming’s children’s book “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang”, and a principal character (kitten) from British composer Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical “Cats”. Interestingly, when “Cats” came to Broadway from London, the character of Jemima was changed to “Syllabub” due to the American audience’s natural aversion to the name Jemima (again owing to Aunt Jemima). Again, Jemima’s off-putting legacy is distinct to the United States. Everywhere else, this is a perfectly acceptable, old ancient Biblical name with a pleasant etymology. It’s currently a Top 200 name in England. Go figure.