The limits of fame, Part 2

Jan 11th 2006

Last time, I talked about an imbalance in the effect of fame on the popularity of names. Popular celebrities regularly send names soaring, while scandal and crime seldom send them plummeting. Examples cited were Jeffrey Dahmer and Adolph Hitler, but feel free to look up Charles Manson, Roscoe Arbuckle, and many others who have gone down the road of infamy, rightly or wrongly. So what does it take to turn parents off a name?

Kobe Bryant was drafted into the National Basketball Association right out of high school in 1996. By the time he turned 24, he had helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to three NBA championships and was an international celebrity and sought-after commercial spokesman. The next year, 2003, he was charged with sexual assault. The media coverage was intense, and while Bryant was not convicted he did admit to adultery and his public image was tattered. To top it off, his team stopped winning. This dramatic rise and fall plays out in the name popularity charts:

The name lost half of it's appeal, virtually overnight. Why Kobe and not the others? Is it a question of race? (Bryant is black.) Is it because it was a new name, without the ballast of generations behind it? Is it because Bryant was the source of the name's popularity to begin with?

For clues, let's look at another dramatic name victim. Monica Lewinksy was no rapist or murderer, but her Oval Office escapades were big news in 1998. And her name fell off a cliff. Take a look:

That's a sheer 50% drop from 1997 to 1999, extraordinary for a top-100 name. (Especially extraordinary considering the countervailing influence of "Friends," a sitcom featuring a Monica which was hugely popular during those same years.)

So what's the lesson of this? We're more scandalized by sex than by violence? With a sample size of just two, we can only speculate. But here's one name wizard's theory.

Both Bryant and Lewinsky were routinely referred to in the media by their first names only: "the Monica interview," "the Kobe trial." (That tendency itself, of course, has plenty to do with the subject's age, race and especially sex.) Through repetition of first-name-only references the baggage attaches to the name itself, not just the individual. To sink a baby name, it may be that the severity of the crime matters less than how we talk about it.


By Anonymous (not verified)
January 11, 2006 6:21 PM

This shouldn't surprise us. News stories about sex sell. News stories about political skullduggery don't, despite their relative importance. The public loves reading about the sad cases of Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway, but shies away from more complicated nuanced stories. It's just easier to understand the travails of Kobe Bryant or Monica Lewinski than it is to follow the ins and outs of the Valerie Plame investigation. And the thought of bestowing a name tainted by the sex scandal du jour on a newborn is distasteful, even if the scandal will be long gone by the time the bairn enters kindergarten.--Elizabeth

By Heather (not verified)
January 12, 2006 10:40 PM

It all seems so random--why would Laci go up in popularity AFTER someone was horribly killed with that name? Is that a legacy that parents want to give? Monica Lewinsky at least lived through her scandal (and was fairly succesful previous and in spite of it), so why would her name be a victim?

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 13, 2006 2:56 PM

Although the Laci Peterson story was horrible, Laci herself got great press. I guess parents naming their baby Laci see the distinction between the story and the name, whereas parents thinking about Monica would then automatically think about, uh, other things. I guess there's an innate distinction between portraying oneself as a victim in a sexual matter when there is obvious culpability involved and actually BEING a victim. And I doubt that there were thinking, "will she be a Monica or a Laci"? I suspect that in the case of Laci, what happened was that the case allowed the name to enter the public consciousness. I haven't checked, but perhaps Chandra Levy did the same thing for her name. The name Monica was already very well established.--Elizabeth

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 14, 2006 12:43 AM

some parents might use Laci as a way of remembering Laci Peterson despite the horrible way she died

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 14, 2006 8:14 PM

I remember having Monica on my list of favorite names when I was expecting my first dd in 1997. Then the whole Lewinsky thing broke out the next year with Monica this, and Monica that, so I was thinking, whew! I am glad I named her something different!

By Becky (not verified)
January 14, 2006 9:44 PM

Another such name to check is in Brown Simpson. Did her name drop during and after the trial?And it will be interesting to see what happens with "Benedict." For a long time it's not been a favorite in the US because "Benedict Arnold" is synonymous with "a traitor." But now there's Pope Benedict - will that change anything?

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 21, 2006 10:03 AM

IMO Monica is a common (and popular) enough name that it isn't likely to be derailed in popularity by a scandal involving someone with that name. As for Laci, it may be more of a consciousness thing -- folks who had never heard of the name saw it in the headlines and thought, "Damn, that's a pretty name" regardless of the circumstances surrounding its getting into the headlines.

By Anonymous (not verified)
January 22, 2006 9:19 PM

I checked Nicole. It was trending downward before the murder, but it seems to have taken an unusually big hit in the year after the murder, when the trial was going on.84 22,24285 22,95686 21,27187 20,27788 20,28189 19,02890 17,94491 16,03192 16,32093 16,16294 16,00795 12,26796 11,12197 10,73398 9,90099 9,4962000 8,5432001 7,7912002 6,9422003 6,1912004 5,627The murder happened in June, 1994 and the criminal trial took place from January to October, 1995.

By Tanja (not verified)
February 17, 2006 2:43 PM

In Malta you get perennials like Marija, or clumps like stacey, (about 18 years old), sheryl, (older), charlene (older still.... I'm one of a batch of mid-40 year olds. Don't forget soapoperas, either.

By debbie (not verified)
February 18, 2006 11:44 AM


By Karen (not verified)
March 24, 2006 12:48 PM

this comment isn't directly related but it's close to the topic... I love the name Rowan for a boy, and it IS traditionally a Celtic male name. It's the name of the current Archbishop of Canterbury... and who could forget Mr. Bean? ( the actor Rowan Atkinson).
However, Brooke Shields used it for her daughter and now I'm often told that it's a 'girl's name'. I'm hoping this name doesn't really take off in popularity, as I'm considering using it for my son ( due in June).
However, if the association because of this ONE celebrity baby makes the world think 'girl' I might have to reconsider this choice!

By Yvette (not verified)
March 24, 2006 3:33 PM

My daughter was born in September 05 and we named her Monica. Ms. Lewinsky never came into play when we were discussing what we would name our daughter and no one really seems to mention it (or care anymore!). One difference, is that we pronounce it with a decidedly Spanish accent MONica, emphasis on the first syllable, and no short 'o' - long o, as opposed to 'ah'. People still pronounce it the Americanized way, but we make a concerted effort to pronounce it with a Spanish accent. Our family lineage is Cuban and Mexican. It seems to help.

By Terry (not verified)
February 23, 2007 5:35 PM

Karen, if people worried more like you do, there would be no Tracys, Robins, Phoenixs Georgies, Merediths, Blairs, Kellys, Dakotas, Lesleys, Parkers, Danas, Erins, Francises, Rhones, Lanes, Paiges, Edens, nor indeed Lacys.

The Irish are notorious for their beautiful disregard for gender when it comes to naming. You would be following a long fearless tradition to do so yourself.

And you would be doing your part to help the name Rowen remain unisex in the face of Brook's scandalous application of it to her daughter.

Oh, and Brook. How did I almost for get that one? River too.

By Kelly (not verified)
October 30, 2007 3:46 AM

I just wanted to respond to the comment that Brooke Shields is causing the name Rowan to be used for gils. Rowan is a unisex name, and I have seen it used for girls wasy before Brooke Shields named her daighter that. Anne Rice's book "The Witching Hour" has a female charachter named Rowan. That book was published in 1990. The movie "The Wicker Man" has a female charachter named Rowan as well. That movie cam out in the 70's. I will be using that name for my next baby if it's a girl, but NOT because of Brooke Shields..I have liked than name since I read "The Witching Hour" in the 90's. I only recently learned that Brooke Shields anmed her daighter that when I was researching the Name Rowan a few weeks ago. So weather Boy or Girl..if you like the name Use it :-)

By Amy (not verified)
December 10, 2007 1:14 AM

I agree you like it use it, my daughter is due at the end of Jan. and she will be Rowan. And I got the name from the Anne Rice novel not Brooke. But it's not "scandalous" that she chose it. It is a UNISEX name. I however feel it has more feminine associations ie. Norse mythology has it that the first woman was made from the rowan tree and the first man from the ash tree. Also I loved this name before I even met my husband and as it nicely turns out his great grandmother's maiden name was Rowan.