The limits of fame

Jan 4th 2006

I often write about the influence of celebrities on name trends. From Shirley Temple in 1934 to Paris Hilton in 2004, hundreds of names have been propelled up the popularity charts by an individual's fame. But have you noticed how seldom I write about names sunk by celebrities? Shouldn't scandal and infamy drag a name down as surely as fame and fortune lift it up?

The short answer is simply no. Once a name is out circulating in society, it's hard to kill. Perhaps a common name has so many associations that a single individual can't defame it. Perhaps parents decide on a favorite name years in advance and don't want to give it up. Or perhaps they just gamble that the negative associations will be fleeting. (There's often truth to that. A relative of mine would have been named Marina except for Marina Oswald. Drawing a blank for a moment? Exactly.)

But there's another, pedestrian reason that it's hard to catch names getting killed off by infamy. Most were already dying natural deaths. After all, infamous villains are generally grownups...and the names of most grownups are on a downward slope.

For example, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news steadily for about a year starting in mid-1991. Sure enough, the popularity of the name Jeffrey fell by 23% from 1990 to 1992. But take a look at that drop in context:

Would you look at that graph and gasp "what happened in 1991?!" While it seems that some parents did change their name plans, the effect is diluted by the existing downward trend.

Even Adolph, one of the most historically stigmatized of all names, didn't drop as dramatically as you might think. Like most Germanic names, its U.S. popularity fell off after WWI. (Partially because of politics, partially because a fad for dense consonant-stuffed names had run its course.) But the name's decline after that was relatively slow and steady, given the course of history. WWII only bumped the name about 25% off its projected path:

Does that 25% drop represent an outer limit for a name's negative impact? After all, it's hard to imagine a name with more negative associations. As it turns out, though, there are other variables to consider -- and a few names have sunk like stones.

To be continued...


By Leslie (not verified)
January 5, 2006 12:39 AM

Hm...I vaguely recall Monica taking a rapid downturn after 1997, but maybe I was imagining it.

By Psyche (not verified)
January 5, 2006 1:23 AM

Monica was already falling since the 1970s.

By Jen (not verified)
January 5, 2006 3:27 AM

I would have expected Adolph to plummet off the charts after the 1940s, but if you look at the namevoyager, the 40s actually mark a slowing of the name's declining popularity. If you follow the pre-1940s trajectory, it should have been off the charts by the 1950s, but it hung around in the top 1000 until the 1970s. Before the 1940s, it was plummeting; after, it was a gently declining slope. That seems to indicate that the events of the 40s caused some people to choose the name Adolph who otherwise would not have done. Why? Were they naming babies for innocent grandfathers, or were they Nazis?

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 5, 2006 5:18 PM

How popular is the name Saddam in the USA as opposed to Europe?

By Jen (not verified)
January 5, 2006 8:22 PM

My parents know someone with an Usama who was about 2 years old in 2001. He became Sam for awhile, as they considered changing his name, but they decided to keep it and might even be back to calling him Usama.

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 5, 2006 11:12 PM

I think the natural downturn in use of the name, plus the Hitler association is why it seems so unthinkable to use the name today. If he had been James Hitler, nobody would think that somebody naming their kid James was a nazi. It's the combination of an outdated name with the association that does it. Now that the name Adolph has become "unthinkable", it's hard to change that image. Otherwise I think Adolf/Adolph would be sharing some of Aiden's popularity. Adolf/Adolph isn't as consonant-dense as other German names, and it starts with a vowel (they seem very popular these days, like the "J" names of the late seventies.

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 7, 2006 8:25 PM

Possibly Adolph morphed into Dolph (like Dolph Lundren, the actor)?

By antoinette (not verified)
January 10, 2006 6:37 PM

Monica fell in 1997. It had hovered around the top 70s/80s for 7 years and dropped to 105 in 1998.Jackson is on the rise despite Micheal Jackson.

By Abi (not verified)
June 25, 2006 9:51 PM

It's true what Anonymous said about 'James Hitler'. Look at Josef Stalin; Joseph and Josef are still popular names. Some names are so common that they can't be affected by individual bearers.

By Matthew (not verified)
January 30, 2007 5:02 PM

Your trend statistics are in terms of absolute numbers of babies named per year. But there are more babies every year, especially after 1946, the "Baby Boom". If your graphs were drawn as percentages, the increasing numbers of total babies would show that the popularities are decreasing much faster than you have shown.

Even the post-1991 "Jeffrey" dropoff evident to people like me who know how to see "multitonic" changes in single curves can tell that there is a detectable further drop significantly greater than the steady drop before it.

It looks like your article is fixing the curves to fit your conclusions, not the other (correct) way around.

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