The question of Dorothy

Aug 25th 2006

In a recent column I mentioned my surprise that the names Dorothy and Dorothea show no signs of revival. A few of you agreed with me, but most said it was no surprise at all. In fact, most commenters felt pretty confident that they knew just what was keeping the name down. Here are some excerpts:

I don't find it surprising at all. I think we'll have to wait longer until the Wizard of Oz one fades out of pop culture.

I doubt Dorothea will make a showing any time soon, since it is the name of one of the most notorious female serial killers of the 1990s.

I wonder if Dorothy is fading away because it's become synonymous with Dorothy the Dinosaur (from the Wiggles) and Dorothy, Elmo's pet goldfish, on Sesame Street.

i am not surprised by the unpopularity of dorothy since it has been adopted by the gay community

My grandmother has half a dozen friends named Dorothy nn, Dottie. Isn't that an old slang term for silly or dopey in the head?

Dorothy always makes me think of those horrible outfits with the gigantic shoulder pads that Dorothy wore on The Golden Girls.

While we're at it, I could throw in another connotation of my own -- if you've seen the movie After Hours, the phrase "surrender Dorothy" sticks in your mind in a whole different way. In the end, though, such a long list of reasons starts to look like no reason at all. No one explanation really holds water. Take the "Golden Girls" sitcom reference, which was the most-cited objection. There were four Golden Girls: Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia and Rose. In the 20 years since the show premiered, Dorothy is the only name that has fallen in popularity. Blanche and Rose are unchanged, and Sophia has skyrocketed. As for the Wizard of Oz, a timeless and positive cultural association isn't likely to sink a name. And so on.

So other readers took a different approach, suggesting that the problem was simply timing:

Girls' names tend to run on a 100-year popularity cycle (look at Emily, Emma, Hannah, Sophie). In the 2020s we'll probably see a whole new crop of Marjories, Dorothys, Dorises, Sylvias and Phyllises

That's a fair point, but chronologically Dorothy is actually closer to Sophie than to Sylvia. The lasting appeal of the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie throws off our sense of timing...this name was a phenomenon not of film but of literature. L. Frank Baum's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, was a huge popular success that spawned decades of sequels, comic strips, silent films and stage plays, including a long-running hit musical. Dorothy was already a trendy name in 1900, but the Oz phenomenon made it soar.

Try typing Dorothy into the NameVoyager. Two of the closest matches for that graph are Evelyn and Eleanor, both of which are already back on the upslope. (Evelyn, in fact, is back on the top-100 names list.)

So what's really holding Dorothy back? All of the issues mentioned above may well have a cumulative effect, but here are my two top candidates: raw numbers and raw sound. For numbers, Dorothy was not merely a hit but a HUGE hit -- ranked among the top 5 girls' names for 26 years in a row. The closest comparisons from that time period are Helen and Ruth, which haven't really hit their comeback strides either. For that matter neither has Ida, a monster hit of an even earlier generation. It may be easier to revive a modest hit girl's name than a mammoth hit.

As for sound, take a look at the history of all names featuring the sounds R and TH, in that order:

The upshot? I still like Dorothy, but I admit to being an Oz partisan. So my money's on Dorothea, which retains a lot of Dorothy's old-fashioned sweetness but sweeps away its cultural baggage. It also shifts the stress away from the less fashionable sounds to the contemporary long E at the end. And if you're not ready to go Dottie, readers suggested a cornucopia of nicknames including Dora, Doe, Dorie, Doro, Dot, Dodie, Thea, Thee and the little powerhouse Dart.

A Ricky-Dicky footnote

Aug 21st 2006

Brother. You go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, maybe even write some fancy-schmancy baby name book, you think you're a grownup, right? Then what happens? You get totally schooled by your dad on your baby name blog.

Yes, after last week's blog on Ricks and Dicks, my father sent an innocent little note. He was shocked, shocked to discover I had neglected to mention a certain Rick. A Rick who hit the silver screen in a white dinner jacket in 1942. Whoopsy-daisy. So kindly insert a big line for Casablanca in the Rick-Dick graph.

Though it's worth noting that Ricky, not Rick, was the major phenomenon, and nobody would have dreamed of calling Humphrey Bogart Ricky. For that matter, nobody got named Ilsa after the movie, either. And...aww, nevermind. Back to the baby naming mines. (And thanks, Dad.)

Peeping Toms, bloody Marys...and disappearing Dicks

Aug 18th 2006

Last time I talked about slang associations and how much they do or don't affect our perception of names. The #1 example today is Dick, which has become an everyday term for penis. ( some circles, I hear.) As it happens, Dick is no longer an everyday nickname for Richard. The name, once common enough to represent an everyman ("Tom, Dick and Harry"), is virtually extinct in today's younger generations.

But did slang really kill it? The use of dick to mean penis dates to the late 19th century but didn't become widely common until the 1960s. The name Dick, meanwhile, was a stalwart of the 1930s and started plummeting in the late '40s when its strongest slang meaning was still "detective." The timeline doesn't fit.

It looks like Dick was a victim of fashion more than jargon. Compare it to other nicknames like Bill, Bob and Jim as seen in this earlier blog entry. The name died a mostly natural death...with an unintentional assist from television.

As of 1939, Dick was the clear standard nickname for Richard while Rick and Ricky were essentially unheard of. Just five years later Ricks and Rickys together narrowly outnumbered Dicks, and soon it was no contest, Rick/Ricky was a phenomenon.

For reference: one Eric "Ricky" Nelson was born in 1940, the second son of bandleader Ozzie Nelson and singer Harriet Hilliard. He became a household name at the age of 4 when his parents launched a popular radio sitcom based loosely on their family life. The kids were played by actors until 1949, when the real Nelson boys were allowed to assume the roles of themselves. Rakish young Ricky was an instant success. In October 1952, the family took the sitcom to tv where it became a long-running hit, with Ricky growing up into a popular teen star. His fame took off even more in 1957 when he recorded his first rock song -- and drove it up the charts by performing it on tv. Ricky became a huge pop star with 30 top-40 hits from 1957-62, second only to Elvis.

Meanwhile, another little Ricky was living another faux-reality life on tv. "I Love Lucy" premiered in 1951, starring married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Arnaz played Ricky Ricardo and their tv son was Ricky Jr., called Little Ricky. Little Ricky was "born" to great hoopla on January 19, 1953, the same day as Lucy and Desi's real-life son Desi Jr.

Got all that? Here's the the same information condensed into name form. The orange is Ricky, the green, for a sense of proportion, is Dick.

This celebrity-fueled explosion of little Rickys accentuated Dick's dated style and hastened its decline. That left a clear landscape for the slang meaning to completely take over the name. Today, the negative connotation is probably strong enough to prevent a Dick revival. But it didn't kill the name on its own; fashion had to get there first.