Celebrity Baby Name Faceoff: Shirley vs. The World

Jun 26th 2013

We live in a celebrity-drenched world, and the celeb-media effect spills over into America's nurseries. Each year, thousands of babies receive names inspired by newly famous performers, tv and movie characters, and reality tv personalities.

As we see baby names like Khloe and Cullen plucked straight from the screen, it feels like a sign of the times. Is celebrity naming really a marker of the 21st Century? Were parents of the pre-Brangelina era less susceptible to the allure of fame?

It's time for a Fame Faceoff: the hottest celebrity names of this generation versus the champion from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Shirley.

Shirley's owes its life as a girl's name to the title character of an 1849 Charlotte Brontë novel. Brontë expected her audience to read the name as peculiar for a girl, writing:

"She had no Christian name but Shirley: her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy"

The name's popularity rose over the course of decades, and by 1928, Shirley was a top-ten name for girls. It then settled in at a steady level for several years. But one of the Shirleys born in 1928 was a dimpled actress/singer/dancer named Shirley Temple. By 1934, this young Shirley was a movie star.

You might think that such a well-established hit name wouldn't experience much of a celebrity boost, but Miss Temple's popularity was enormous. Here's a graph of what happened in the first two years of her Hollywood reign.

What would be a suitable modern comparison? Well, the fastest-rising name of 2007 also arrived on the shoulders of wildly popular acting/singing/dancing girl: Miley Cyrus. Let's compare the hottest rising years of the names Shirley and Miley.


Hmm. Judging by that graph, this isn't a faceoff, it's a bloodbath. Big Shirley wipes up the turf with Miley. 

Maybe it's a problem of scale. The "hotness formula" I use to calculate fast-rising names considers the percentage change in popularity, along with the number of babies involved. A name that starts out near zero can experience a huge percentage change.

What if we focus on modern celebrities who produced the biggest boost in number of babies, to move up to Shirley's scale? We could also add up multiple celebrity influences, to  match Shirley's starting level in today's more diverse naming culture.

Over the past two years, America's three fastest-rising names based on number of babies were Liam, Mason and Harper. Like Shirley, all three names were first fashionable, then celebrity-boosted: Liam by a "One Direction" singer and a Hunger Games actor; Mason by the son of reality-tv personality Kourtney Kardashian; Harper by several celebrity babies. If you add all three together, you get a starting point equal to Shirley's pre-Shirley Temple usage. Let's compare.

 

It's still no contest. The Shirley Temple factor was more than three times the size of today's top three celebrity boosts combined. In fact, it's unimaginable for any celebrity today to have a name impact close to Shirley Temple's. The boost she gave to her name between 1933 and 1935 was bigger than the total popularity of today's #1 boys' and girls' names, Jacob and Sophia, put together.

Was Shirley an anomaly -- an anachronistic celebrity name in an otherwise tradition-minded era? Or could celebrity baby name trends have deeper roots than we think? More on this question next time.

Comments

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June 26, 2013 6:04 PM

I love these kinds of posts that put trends into perspective!

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June 28, 2013 2:03 AM

That is truly remarkable! Excellent info as always, Laura! "Shirley" with such wide naming diversity today, it doesn't matter very much if people do follow a trend because the numbers don't compare to trends of yesteryear. 

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Trends apply, only, if you feed into them. Name your child whatever you want, obviously, the STARS did not care if their kid was names after a fruit or city. If it rolls from your tongue, it is destiny...

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I think the explanation to why the name Shirley got more popular than Miley is that Shirley was cute and adorable in the eyes of parents, Miley Cyrus wasn't, at maximum she was mostly liked by teenagers.

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