The limits of fame, Part 2
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.