Name Detective: 1970s Edition

Jul 21st 2008

When it comes to celebrity-inspired baby names, I always say that it's not about the celebrity, it's about the name.  If sheer popularity and exposure were what mattered, Madonna would be the top name of the past 25 years.  In reality, even a modest pop culture moment can beget a name phenomenon...if it's the right name at the right time.  Years later, the name's "celebrity" origins will be lost from memory.  This is a tale of one such name.

Here's a graph of one name's popularity starting in 1974.  (The numbers printed on the bars represent the rank among all girls' names in the U.S.)  Any guess what name it is?


That's a major out-of-nowhere hit.  And most remarkably, the name has held steady ever since.  It's currently celebrating its 30th straight year in the top 200.  But don't feel bad if you can't guess from the graph -- I certainly couldn't.  Because the name is Jillian.  And what the heck made Jillian one of the fastest rising names of the 1970s?

I was curious, so I did a little digging.  Credit the name's first appearance in 1976 to soap operas.  "Ryan's Hope" premiered in the second half of 1975, featuring a character named Jillian Coleridge.  The next step up the ladder came in 1977, with a film character: Gillian Guiler of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  My best guess on the the trigger for 1982 burst is actress Ann Jillian (born Ann Nauseda).  Hardly a Madonna in the bunch.

A clue to the reason Jillian caught on so spectacularly can be found in the Close Encounters character.  Note that it's Gillian, with a G.  Yet that spelling got only a fraction of the boost of the J version, thanks to old friend Jill.  In 1977, Jill was an American standard.  The name had been in the top 100 for 20 years in a row.  It was still extremely popular, but also extremely familiar.  Jillian seemed like a natural way to freshen up a name that people still liked but were getting a little bored with.  It was just a baby step away from the tried and true, a perfect recipe for popularity.  In short, a modest pop-culture launching pad was enough to send Jillian into orbit because parents were already ready for it.

If you've been watching the recent top-10 American names, this phenomenon may sound familiar.  It's replaying in Addison, birthed of familiar favorite Madison with a big boost from a tv character.  30 years from now, "Dr. Addison Montgomery" will probably be just a footnote to naming history too.

Knock Knox: The X & O roundup

Jul 14th 2008

The baby name world can now rest easy:  the Jolie-Pitt twins have arrived.  Everyone, please welcome Knox Leon and Vivienne Marcheline.

As we've discussed here before, Angelina Jolie is a rare style-maker in the field of baby names.  Fashion trackers wait on her name selections the way investors used to hang on every word from Alan Greenspan.  So will Knox and Vivienne get the same boost as Maddox and Shiloh?

Let's start with the most surprising of all the Jolie-Pitt baby names: Vivienne.  Surprising because it's perfectly traditional.  Vivienne is simply the French feminine form of Vivian, modestly common in the U.S. during Vivan's heyday in the 1910's-20's.  In fact, many more Viviennes have been born in the U.S. than in France over the past century.  Vivian is already a comeback name and the Spanish/Italian Viviana is hot too, so Vivienne simply fits in comfortably.

Knox is a step apart.  Most Americans associate it first with the gold of Fort Knox, second with Knox gelatine, and third with "Mr. Knox, sir" of Fox in Sox.  (A fine character name to be sure, but it's no Sylvester McMonkey McBean.)  Knox was a natural choice for the Jolie-Pitt family, since all of their boys have -x names and Mr. Pitt has a Knox in his family tree.

Despite the fashion power of the letter x, I don't see Maddox-like popularity ahead for Knox.  If you're looking for the next great x name, then, it's time to strike out on your own.  Below are some creative x names with potential...


...and while we're at it, some o names (male and female) as alternatives to Shiloh.


"Match This": meet the siblings

Jul 13th 2008

A few days ago I invited you all to suggest "sibling" names to go with Barack, Kingston and Sylvie for the next edition of The Baby Name Wizard.  It was fascinating to read your different approaches to the concept of matching: keying on sound, meaning, origin, cultural connections, or just a gut feeling that "those go together."  Thank you for an outstanding pool of ideas!

Before I tell you what I've settled on, a few general thoughts on the process.

What is a sibling match?
The "sibling" lists in BNW serve three functions.  The most obvious is as literal sibling ideas.  E.g., if you named your daughter Landry, perhaps you'd like Madden for a new baby boy.  The second function is as an idea generator.  I want readers to be able to pick up the book with just one or two appealing names in mind, and have the book guide them to other promising choices.  The third and subtlest function is to help parents see the name as others see it.  The 10 sibling suggestions, taken together, should represent the original name in all its facets of style.

This last goal sometimes requires a chimeric list, divided into different kinds of matches.  For instance, how would you describe Ciara?
A.  An Irish name pronounced KEER-ə
B.  An African-American name, popularized by the one-named singer Ciara and pronounced see-EHR-ə
If you think the answer is "both," then you have to divide up the the territory.  (Or find a midpoint, if you about Rohan?)

And a final complication -- the one that was giving me fits as I looked for brothers for Sylvie.  Many name styles suffer from a sex imbalance.  If you want an "old-fashionedy" name with a lively, offbeat style, your options for girls go on and on.  The prime boys' names, though, number about a dozen.  Factor in that each girl's name gets five boys' suggestions, and it's all too easy to suggest a name like Theo 25 times.  It's a struggle to strike a balance between the best matches and the best variety across the book.  But you all agreed that Theo goes with Sylvie, and you're all absolutely right.  So Theo and pals are in.

And now, the (semi) final match lists:

Sisters: Zahra, Naima, Malaika, Imani, Malia
Brothers: Malik, Kofi, Kwame, Jelani, Khalid
Comments: In the end, I decided to go mostly with East African names that are uncommon but somewhat familiar in the West, plus a few other names with political associations.  It's not a perfect solution, but it's the closest I could come to representing the style and impact of the name Barack.  The political story simply hasn't developed fully enough to match with historical figures.

Sisters: Amelie, Leonie, Iris, Noelle, Lucie
Brothers: Theo, Jules, Felix, Jasper, Hugh
Comments: Thanks to all of you from the French-speaking world who shared your bafflement at Sylvie being a hip up-and-coming name!  I realize it's just an ordinary middle-aged name to you...but then again, we marvel at all your little Arthurs.

Sisters: Indigo, Marley, Juno, Harlow, Winter
Brothers: Lexington, Bowman, Maddox, Cash, Dekker
Comments: This was wide-open territory and hard to narrow down.  For boys I focused on surnames & place names with some edge.  For girls I went with more of a gestalt approach.  The reader suggestion Indigo is a great example of the mysterious art of sibling matching.  It has nothing specifically in common with Kingston, but it just feels right.