Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Oprah Winfrey got her name via a typo on her birth certificate.
Talk-show-host turned actress and media mogul Oprah Winfrey is, of course, one of the most famous personalities in the world, let alone the world of television and film.
Winfrey has had one of the most difficult roads to stardom imaginable, as she grew up in poverty for most of her life (when she was a child she would often have to wear dresses made out of potato sacks) and had a very poor relationship with her mother, Vernita Lee, throughout most of her life (Winfrey has even cited her relationship with her mother as a reason she has never pursued having children of her own), who had Winfrey when she still a teenager. Perhaps due to the rough surroundings of her childhood, a strange legend has persisted surrounding Winfrey’s famous first name. The legend is that Oprah’s name came about via a typo on her birth certificate. In fact, on the website oprah-winfrey.com (not affiliated with Oprah Winfrey – I’m just pointing it out as a notable source for a commonly told story – I have also seen it told in at least six different biographies of Oprah Winfrey), it says:
She was originally named Orpah after a woman from the “Book of Ruth” but a spelling mistake on the birth certificate changed it to Oprah.
Is that true?
This is false. The name on her birth certificate is Orpah Gail Lee (she is named after one of the figures mentioned in the Book of Ruth in the Bible, as Lee’s aunt Ida liked the name).
There are various stories about exactly how it got translated from Orpah to Oprah during Winfrey’s childhood, but it seems pretty clear that eventually people just mispronounced the name and it stuck. Winfrey herself has a good sense of humor over her famous name, stating:
On the birth certificate it is Orpah, but then it got translated to Oprah, so here we are. But that’s great because Oprah spells Harpo backwards. I don’t what Orpah spells.
Harpo Productions is the name of Winfrey’s production company.
Honestly, the whole “spelled the name wrong on the birth certificate” story seems just a tad bit racist to me, as you nearly always see such stories associated with African-American parents. For instance, I’ve done a very similar Basketball Legends Revealed on the story that NBA star Anfernee Hardwawy’s mother also misspelled his name on his birth certificate (that one is more offensive than the Oprah one, though, as the Oprah story is just that an R and a P were transposed – Hardaway’s mother supposedly couldn’t spell “Anthony”).
Whether racist in intent or not, this extremely common legend is…
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.