Nfld. & Labrador

All the lovely Juanitas: How did a Spanish name find such popularity in Newfoundland?

A popular name for many years, Juanita was a woman of song who captured the imaginations of a long-ago generation, writes Ainsley Hawthorn.

A woman of song captured the imaginations of a long-ago generation

(Katie Rowe/CBC)

Juanita is a popular woman's name in Spanish-speaking communities the world over.

Newfoundland and Labrador has its fair share of Juanitas, too. Here, you're likely to find the Spanish first name paired with an incongruous family name like Murphy, Squires or Doyle.

It raises the question: how did Juanita become a common name in a place with next to no Spanish heritage?

Juanita — originally a nickname for Juana, the feminine form of John, before eventually becoming a given name in its own right — was solidly established on the island by the middle of the 20th century.

If you look at the 1945 census, you will find dozens of Juanitas listed there, along with the occasional Waneta or Wanita — spellings that more readily suggest the name's pronunciation to an English-speaking reader.

The story starts in Bay Roberts

Juanita seems to make its first appearance in Newfoundland with the birth of Emma Juanita Bradbury in Bay Roberts in 1888.

(Katie Rowe/CBC)

Only a few years later, parents from Fortune Bay to the Baie Verte Peninsula, on opposite sides of Newfoundland, began choosing the name Juanita for their baby girls.

By the early 1900s, Juanita had spread to the Bonavista Peninsula, the Eastport Peninsula, the Twillingate Islands and the capital city of St. John's.

What inspired this naming trend? Where would Newfoundlanders have come across a Latin name like Juanita?

One explanation could be Newfoundland's seafaring culture.

Some Newfoundlanders sailed the world over and might have heard the name in a foreign port. Spanish ships called Juanita also made their way in and out of St. John's harbour during the 19th century.

(Katie Rowe/CBC)

Fishing vessels and foreign strangers, though, don't make for attractive namesakes. Instead, it seems more likely that Newfoundland's first Juanitas were named for something else: a song.

The sheet music for Juanita was published in London in 1853. The song was composed by British author and social reformer Caroline Norton when she wasn't busy advocating for a woman's right to own her own property, to file for divorce and to share custody of her children.

A decidedly English ballad

(Katie Rowe/CBC)

Despite being subtitled A Song of Spain, Juanita was a decidedly English ballad with a Spanish theme to the lyrics and a Latin-inspired trill in the chorus. Using romantic imagery, the singer entreats his beloved Juanita not to leave him:

Soft o'er the fountain,

Ling'ring falls the southern moon;

Far o'er the mountain

Breaks the day too soon!

In thy dark eyes' splendour,

Where the warm light loves to dwell,

Weary looks, yet tender,

Speak their fond farewell.

Do you know the tune? Listen to Bing Crosby's rendition from the 1930s, when Juanita was a standard: 

In the final chorus, he asks for her hand in marriage:

Nita, Juanita!

Let me linger by thy side!

Nita, Juanita!

Be my own fair bride.

A favourite melody

Juanita achieved massive sales and would have been played and sung in middle class drawing rooms throughout Britain. Since it was intended for English audiences, some copies of the sheet music include a helpful note explaining that Juanita is "pronounced 'Waneta', placing the accent on 'e.'"

(Katie Rowe/CBC)

The song made it across the Atlantic to North America, too. A Newfoundland sea captain crooned it to a young woman in New Brunswick in 1873, a singer performed it at a soiree in St. John's in 1894, and a Newfoundland magazine in 1918 described it as a favourite melody of "the old folk."

Popular culture has always exerted a strong influence on baby naming trends.

The name Shirley took off in the 1930s thanks to sunny child star Shirley Temple, cowboy names like Cody came back onto the scene in the 1950s alongside TV westerns, and the name Jennifer exploded in the 1970s after the release of the film Love Story, which featured a woman named Jennifer as a romantic heroine.

Juanita was the international smash hit of its day.

Like the Lindas, Brandys, and Kayleighs named after more recent chart-toppers, N.L.'s Juanitas owe their name to a woman of song who captured the imaginations of a long-ago generation.

(Katie Rowe/CBC)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.