In Search of Shirley
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.