Can Judi Dench save the name Philomena from extinction?

By Philomène Offen

When the new Judi Dench movie, Philomena, came to my local multiplex, I was eager to see this already-acclaimed film. But what I really wanted to do was pose under the marquee while my husband took pictures. Alas, the AMC 12 doesn’t have one.

Regardless, thank you, Harvey Weinstein and Steve Coogan, for putting this name back on the map.

While my name is actually Philomène, I’ve spent 66 years explaining, “It’s the French of Philomena.” Like that helped.

Judi Dench stars as the title character in the Dec. 2013 film release "Philomena"

Several years ago, I searched Social Security’s records of girls’ names back to 1947 (my birth year) and discovered that Philomena has never made the top 4,000. (Even I knew that Philomène was a non-starter.) It’s not that there aren’t odd or foreign names on the list. In 1990, Philomena didn’t even make the top 14,000, coming in at 14,587 just before Phuonganh. That hurt.

The irony is, most new parents today would consider this the ultimate success. And in fact, I do understand people wanting to give their child a name that he or she will not have to share with thousands. My mother, née Margaret Smith, was one of them. When she married my French father and found the name Philomène on the family roster, she leapt upon it like a raptor on road kill.

In reality, the odds of my name making the top 4,000 girls names diminished precipitously in 1961 when my namesake, St. Philomena, was “declassified” by the Catholic Church. Her remains had been found in the Roman Catacombs but there was this niggling issue as to whether she was devoured by lions or just died of the flu. It goes without saying that my St. Philomena rosary is now a collector’s item.

Several years later, the Catholic Church did a wholesale housecleaning of 300 of Philomena’s fellow venerables, including St. Christopher, citing, as with Philomena, unverified credentials. People do, however, continue to name their children Christopher. Unlike Christopher, Philomena has always had enough of a (in my view, completely unmerited) weirdness factor to be a sure shot in studies of people with unusual names. Some years back, I discovered that I might be afflicted with a recognized disability, Dysappellatia, which is not, as it sounds, a fear of big mountains in Kentucky, but the crippling psychological effects on people with seriously odd names. A British paper published a study of people with first names such as Pinkney, Philomena and Matiwilda, and last names including Overflow, Placenta, and Handbag. I was hugely offended to be included in this group. I suppose if one looks at it from the positive side, however, I could have been Philomena Matiwilda Overflow-Placenta. Of course, I would have been an ax murderer at four.

Saint Philomena

There are definite advantages to a name like Philomena: people remember you. They remember you have an unusual name. The downside: they don’t remember what it is. I'm not too wild about being called Philistine, but Filament, Phi-LOM-enie and Falafel get As for effort.

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