It's time for another dip into the pool of one-hit wonders, names that ranked among the 1000 most popular in the United States for exactly one year, never to appear again.
But first, a quick note. After a recent installment of this one-hit series, a reader pointed me to another set of one-hit names on the website "Nancy's Baby Names." Who'd have guessed anybody else had been obsessive enough to run that data? (A tip of the cap to Nancy, the calculations are a royal pain!) Since different writers bring different angles to any story, I'm going to continue offering my take on this odd and intriguing set of names.
In a previous post I rounded up names based on familiar surnames, and some peaks and valleys of fashion potential. Today's focus is "meaning names" which take their impact from associations in the wide world outside of name dictionaries.
The one-hit wonder list includes dozens of common English words, as well as names of places and cultures. Meaning and place names are hot today, too, so some of the older one-hits seem to foreshadow contemporary trends. Take Indian tribal names, a hot trend of the 1990s when Dakota was a top-100 name for boys and Cheyenne a top-100 girl's name. Flash back 50 years and you discover that Cheyenne hit the boys' charts in 1957, when gunslinger Cheyenne Bodie roamed America's tv sets. ("Navajo" also pops up as a one-hit name from 1891. Judging from census records, that probably reflected actual Navajo Indians recorded with names like "Navajo Pete.")
Other meaning names highlight differences between past and present. For better or worse, we're no longer likely to name our sons Welcome, Jolly or Friend. A selection of one-hit meaning names (sex in parentheses):
The Ruling Class
The Great Outdoors
The Spice Rack
...and in the spirit of Cheyenne Bodie, some one-hit names of the cowpoke genre:
I flatter myself that The Baby Name Wizard is a good source for name information, particularly trends and ideas. But it doesn't cover everything. Most conspicuously absent is the stuff of the familiar baby name dictionary: name etymology, or "meanings and origins." (Personally I think meanings and origins are very different things, but that's an argument for another day.) Etymology buffs might want to keep a name dictionary at hand to research the linguistic history of their favorite names. But which dictionary?
I get the question often enough that I figured I ought to share my answer here. First, I should make clear that there are quite a few worthwhile name dictionaries on the market (as well as quite a few stinkers.) I have no affiliation with any of them. But if I had to recommend just one book on English name origins to keep on your bookshelf, my choice would be:
The Oxford Dictionary of First Names by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges.
This book was compiled by distinguished lexicographers, and it shows. Compare the entries on my name, Laura, in a typical name "dictionary" vs. the Oxford...
Italian, Spanish, and English: feminine form of the Late Latin male name Laurus "Laurel". St Laura was a 9th-century Spanish nun who met her death in a cauldron of molten lead. Laura is also the name of the woman addressed in the love poetry of the Italian poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-74), and it owes much of its subsequent popularity to this. There have been various speculations about her identity, but it has not been established with any certainty. He first met her in 1327 while living in Avignon, and she died of the plague in 1348. The current popularity of the given name in the English-speaking world dates from the 19th century, when it was probably imported from Italy. Cognates: French: Laure. Catalan: Llora. German: Lora, Lore. Pet form: English: Laurie.
Need I say more? Well, perhaps a bit more. Given current name styles, you might also want a dictionary of surnames. Conveniently, Hanks and Hodges wrote one of those as well. It's pricy and not easily available in the U.S., but fear not. The first-name and surname dictionaries have been collected in a single massive volume together with A. D. Mills' dictionary of English place names. With a shipping weight of 4.5 pounds, the Oxford Names Companion is a whole lot of dictionary for your money. It's only for the hard-core name enthusiast...but hey, you're reading this blog, right?
Extra bonus radio edition!
If you're looking for even more baby name talk in all media, you might want to check out the recent name-filled hour on NPR's "On Point."
Last week I introduced the "one-hit wonders," names that made the U.S. top-1000 name charts one year and never again. In the weeks to come I'll be taking periodic dips into this fascinating pool of names, exploring the outer edges of American baby name style.
This week I'll lead off with some superlatives -- one-hit names of past generations that are hardest and easiest to picture parents turning to today.
Easiest to picture:
Tacy (psst, parents, don't forget to give your daughter Betsy-Tacy for her 5th birthday!)
Hardest to picture
Girtha (a special award winner; like Bertha, but fatter!)
If you look again at the "easiest" boy's list above, you'll see that it's dominated by surnames. Overall, surname-based names make up about a third of the male one-hit wonders. The late 1800s and early 1900s were a heyday of the surname style, with common choices like Winfield, Sanford, Eldridge and Lyman. Some, doubtless, were taken from personal family trees. Others were chosen for the reflected glory of prominent citizens. The one-hits of the 1880s-90s, for instance, include gilded-age financiers (Pratt, Vanderbilt) and Civil War generals (Meade, McClellan). But many other names were chosen as pure style statements, emblems of Anglo elegance.
One intriguing sub-style in the one-hit list is surnames ending in -s. They're exceedingly formal, and exceedingly rare now that our taste in surnames turns more to the rugged and rakish (see this 2005 post on tradesman names). Some one-hit s-men:
And a selection of other evocative one-hit surnames: