In Search of Shirley

Jun 23rd 2005

It's no secret that a well-named celebrity can start a new baby-naming trend. But the perception of celebrity influence is often greater than the reality. Such is the case with little Emma, born to Rachel and Ross of "Friends" in May, 2002. She's often cited as the source of the name Emma's popularity, but that name was chosen for the character in reflection of reality: it was already a top choice of fashionable urban parents like Rachel and Ross. (In Washington D.C., a particularly fashion-forward name district, Emma was the #2 name of 2001.)

Similarly, several people have written in here suggesting that the Aidan craze originated with a character on "Sex and the City." While that exposure probably gave the name an extra boost, the character name was again more a reflection of the trend than its source. Before 1990, Aidan had never appeared in the U.S. top thousand. By late 2001, when the Aidan character appeared on "Sex & the City," it was already a top hundred name, and 27 other rhyme-twins (Braden, Cayden, et al) were in the top 1000.

Which brings us to the ultimate celebrity name, Shirley. Shirley Temple was the top box-office star of the 1930s. From about 1934 (Little Miss Marker) to 1939 (The Little Princess), she was an absolute phenomenon...and those same years mark the name Shirley's stint as a top-five name for American girls. Little Miss Temple has routinely been credited with the name's popularity by name writers, me included. Should we think again? Sociologist Stanley Lieberson, in his masterful opus A Matter of Taste, notes that Shirley Temple was actually part of an existing Shirley wave. (She was, after all, only five years old when Little Miss Marker was made.) In fact, the name was already in the top 10 when Temple was born.

Yet it's hard to imagine that an angelic, immensely popular child star wouldn't have a big naming impact. After all, she must have been on parents' minds. In 1939, you could no more name a girl Shirley without thinking of Shirley Temple than you could name a boy Roosevelt without thinking of the president. But perhaps the name had already reached its saturation point...or perhaps the high starting rank has simply camouflaged the fame effect.

Shirley was the #9 name of Shirley Temple's pre-stardom 1933, and the #2 name of post-stardom 1935. A pretty modest change in rank. But as I'm always muttering to any who'll listen, you can't tell diddly from ranks. Take a look at what really happened in those two years:

From 1933 to 1935, the number of Shirleys born tripled - an extraordinary leap for a name that was already so popular. This Shirley Temple spike, accounting for tens of thousands of babies, is one of the sharpest name spikes America has ever seen.

Temple's impact was so strong that it sent out ripples extending to other names. Her appearances as "Heidi" and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" sparked jumps in those names, and the dormant name Penelope suddenly hit the charts after Shirley played a Penelope in Now and Forever. But most telling is the pattern of names similar to Shirley. Early in the 20th Century Shirley was an anomaly, a surname used primarily for girls (thanks to the title heroine of a Charlotte Brontë novel.) It stayed that way for decades, until the Good Ship Lollipop sailed into the zeitgeist. Then see what happened:

Shelby: Not on the top-1000 name list in 1934, Shirley Temple's breakout year. By 1937, it was #119.

Shelley: Virtually unknown until the late 1930s, when it began a slow but steady rise until Shelley Winters (born Shirley) hit it big in the late '40s.

Sherry: Slow but steady rise from the mid-20s to 1934. Then from 1934 to 1935, the number of Sherrys more than doubled.

You can't say that Shirley Temple was responsible for the name Shirley's popularity. There would be plenty of 70-year-old Shirleys out there even without her. But few people in modern times have had a more dramatic impact on American names.


By Camilla (not verified)
June 26, 2005 3:28 PM

Thanks for citing Lieberson's book! I blather about it all the time on the forums where I discuss names, but it's never caught on. Maybe you'll spread interest!Thanks for the great blog.

By Anonymous (not verified)
June 27, 2005 1:22 AM

I met a random person this week who said they picked their daughter's name (Quinn) off your website when she was born. I must say, I am always amused by your thoughts. Keep it up!

By Anonymous (not verified)
June 27, 2005 2:12 PM

Can't resist: "Surely you can't be serious? I am serious, and don't call me Shirley." Actually one of the most famous males named Shirley is Shirley Povich, father of Maury and famous sports writer for the Washinton Post.

By Zerahsedai (not verified)
June 27, 2005 6:42 PM

I can attest to the fact that Shirley was used for girls before Shirley Temple hit it bigtime. My grandmother was born in 1928 and is named Shirley. She was on the front end of a trend!

By pregnancyweekly (not verified)
June 27, 2005 8:36 PM


By Anonymous (not verified)
June 29, 2005 7:18 PM

There was a film version of Jane Austen's "Emma" that came out in the late nineties that may have aided the name's rise to glory. Do you think actor Noah Wylie's popularity on ER helped propel Noah up the ranks?

By Anonymous (not verified)
July 6, 2005 4:53 PM

I have known three men named Shirley, one of whom was a one-star General in the Air Force. I have noticed that Dorothy had a spike in popularity during the first few years after "Wizard of Oz" came out, but like Shirley Temple already being in a wave of Shirleys, I think there was a Dorothy wave already in progress at that time. Comments?Susan

By Anonymous (not verified)
July 6, 2005 10:16 PM

I have to say that I wished that I had Googled my daughters name before settling on Doria. Turns out that it is a very popular porn site! I don't know that it would have changed our minds, but it is good to know!

By Allison (not verified)
March 8, 2011 8:49 PM

SHIRLEY CLUM was a MALE newscaster/reporter for television stations in Phoenix Aruzona and San Diego, California. This was in the 1980s.
I understand Shirley held 3 black belts in Karate and maybe having the name Shirley is why. Remember Johnny Cash 's song "A boy named Sue"?

November 4, 2013 6:01 AM

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June 29, 2014 9:48 PM

Allison is correct  about  Shirley Clum,  the male Phoenix tv news announcer.  One thing I can add is that he started on Phoenix tv way before the '80s.