Starlet Names from the Silent Screen

Apr 2nd 2018

Hollywood wouldn’t be what it is today without the pioneering glamour of its early starletsand neither would the U.S. top 100 names list. Turn-of-the-century names like Clara (as in actress Clara Bow), Lillian (Gish), and Alice (Terry) are back in fashion, with modern parents drawn to their elegance and vintage vibes. If you like the throwback style, more names of the silent film era are ready to be discovered.

Some of these feminine names exude sophistication and uniqueness, while others embody a more classic and understated aura. Still, these fifteen retro names look beautiful whether headlining a movie poster or printed on a birth certificate.


Theda Bara in Cleopatra, 1917 - Image via Flickr

Theda. The original “vamp,” Theda Bara was known for her iconic femme fatale roles, as well as her exotic name - Theda is short for Theodosia, as Ms. Bara was named for Aaron Burr’s daughter. Today, Theda feels ripe for revival, with its formal simplicity and stunning appeal.

Corinne. This delicate French name is a gorgeous alternative to Cora, and comes from the Greek word for “maiden.” Actress Corinne Mae Griffith helped boost this name’s popularity in the 1920’s, but Corinne has always been appreciated for its femininity and grace.

Viola. Despite the popularity of Olivia and Violet, confident and compelling Viola has yet to join her style sisters on the top 1000. Silent film star Viola Dana is one thespian namesake, but twenty-first century audiences may relate the name more closely to modern actress Viola Davis.

Dorothy. A top ten name from 1904 to 1939, it’s no wonder that delightful Dorothy has begun to rise again - its English sound, notable namesakes, and overall positive vibes make it especially attractive. Actress Dorothy Gish was known for her talent as a comedienne, giving the name cinematic substance beyond The Wizard of Oz.

Olive. The lovely Ziegfeld star, Olive Thomas, was the first actress to portray a “flapper girl” on film, adding this pleasant name to the pantheon of movie history. Darling Olive has certainly been helped by the rise of Olivia, but it still feels like a vintage botanical choice.

Florence. With a stage name like Florence Lawrence, it’s no wonder that the performer earned the title of “The First Movie Star” during a time in which many actors were uncredited. The name Florence calls to mind historical figures and gardens in bloom, making it especially memorable today.

Mabel. Sweet and stylish Mabel has been slowly rising over the past few years along with retro gems like Lucy and Stella, yet it feels more timeless than trendy. Notable wearer Mabel Normand not only acted in early films, but also wrote for the screen and led her own production company - an inspiring early #GirlBoss.

Jetta. While this Dutch diminutive of Henriette is now associated with the Volkswagen brand, the name stands apart with a contemporary edge - Jetta is cool and quirky, an update to Jenna or Jade. The popularity of actress Jetta Goudal increased the name’s usage in the mid-1920s, but it’s never been given to more than 50 girls in a year.

Blanche. One of MGM’s first starlets, Blanche Sweet captivated audiences throughout the early twentieth century with her dynamic acting style. Bianca may have more fans these days, but Blanche deserves another look for its French sound, sophisticated aura, and (current) uncommon usage.

Mae. An ideal cross-cultural choice, Mae (as well as May and Mei) is beloved worldwide for its femininity and panache, working well as a nickname or full first name. Silent film star Mae Murray reportedly chose her stage name based on her birth month, but Mae’s most defining traits are its energy and flair.

Dolores. The dust is beginning to shake off this beautiful Spanish name as modern parents become drawn to its elegance - and its fabulous nicknames, Lola and Dolly. Actress Dolores Costello is known as the matriarch of the Barrymore acting family, as well as “The Goddess of the Silent Screen.”

Constance. The tenacious and funny Constance Talmadge joined her sister Norma in silent comedy films in the 1910’s, contributing to the early rise of Hollywood. This virtue name peaked in the mid-twentieth century, but Constance could make a comeback with its strength and gravitas.

Pola. Bombshell Pola Negri adopted her stage name from a shortening of her true middle name, Apolonia, but the name also nodded to Negri’s roots in Poland. The aurally similar Lola and Nola have gained attention for their concision and delicacy, so why not consider Pola?

Leatrice. Thanks to actress Leatrice Joy, this combination of Leah and Beatrice soared through the top 1000 in the 1920’s and 1930’s. With L-names especially favored nowadays, Leatrice could work well as a route to Leah or Trixie - but it admittedly may require a bit of explaining.

Bessie. A classic nickname for Elizabeth, Bessie has been worn by musicians, athletes, and actors, including silent film actress Bessie Love (born Juanita Horton). Once relegated to the barnyard, Bessie may be ready to bounce back with its upbeat spirit and amiable sound.

Overlooked Girls' Names with Fashionable Endings

Mar 29th 2018

Seven names with a "bel" ending, from Annabelle to Mabel, rank among the top thousand names for American girls. Does that exhaust all the possibilities? Not by a long shot. A host of "bels"—and other popular name endings—are waiting to be discovered among the name choices of past generations.

The name statistics of the 1880s-1920s feature hundreds of names with fashionable suffixes. I searched for currently rare girls' names ending in -belle/-bel, -ora and -ia, discarding options that stepped too far outside current fashion bounds. (Sorry, Vernabelle. And an extra-double sorry to Splendora, a one-hit wonder of 1923.)

The 49 options below include some throwbacks, some curiosities, and a few names so modern-sounding that it's surprising we don't see them more often. Among them, you may find a fresh alternative to a popular favorite. Annabelle and Alexandria, get ready to meet Evabelle and Arcadia.





Name Rankings and the Illusion of Consensus

Mar 22nd 2018

In May, the U.S. government will release its annual baby name statistics and I will post the new top 20 name list in this space. It's the most exciting naming day of the year, my profession's Superbowl Sunday. But how much does that top 20 list really mean?

The answer is "less and less every year." The top 20 names represent the points of agreement and commonality in our baby name culture, and agreement and commonality are going out of style. The driving force behind current name trends is the desire to be different. Take a look at the percentage of babies receiving a top 20 name over time:

Through the 1960s, the top 20 names covered between a third and a half of all American babies. Back then, a top-20 list would have given you a pretty solid snapshot of name style. Today, the portion of babies covered by a top 20 list is just one in eight, and falling.

The new top 20 is not just a smaller snapshot, but a potentially a misleading one. For instance, the top names of the 1960s, Michael and Lisa, were broadly popular across ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic lines. Today, it's easier for names to rise up the ranks by appealing primarily to a particular demographic or region. What's more, the lifecycle of hit names is getting shorter. When style is about rapid change and individuality, focusing on the ever-shrinking points of consensus leads us away from the real story.

This isn't to say that name stats aren't informative. They have a great deal to tell us about our whole society's attitudes, values and obsessions. We just have to cast a broader net, looking at samples and shifts in addition to summaries. I'll still be posting the new top 20 name list the moment it's released this May, but I'm going to post other ways of tracking style as well. I'll be talking about the median or "average" names, the risers and fallers, the brand-new names, and the top names in each state. That kind of array now paints a far clearer picture than the top of the charts. In today's fashion, consensus itself is an outlier.