The limits of fame
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...