TV URBAN LEGEND: Oprah Winfrey got her name because of a typo on her birth certificate.
Talk-show host turned actress and media mogul Oprah Winfrey is, of course, one of the world’s most famous personalities. However, she had one of the most difficult roads to stardom imaginable, as she grew up in poverty (when she was a child, she would often have to wear dresses made out of potato sacks) and for most of her life had a poor relationship with her mother Vernita Lee, who had Winfrey while still a teenager. Perhaps due to the rough surroundings of her childhood, a strange legend has persisted about Winfrey’s famous first name: that it came about because of a typographical error on her birth certificate. In fact, on oprah-winfrey.com (it’s not affiliated with Oprah Winfrey, but I’m pointing to it as a notable source for a commonly told story; I seen it repeated in at least six biographies), it states:
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?
No. The name on her birth certificate is Orpah Gail Lee (she is named after one of the figures mentioned in the biblical Book of Ruth, as Lee’s aunt Ida liked the name).
There are various stories about how exactly it was 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 about her name:
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 know 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 a tad racist, 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.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!