The limits of fame, Part 2

Jan 11th 2006

Last time, I talked about an imbalance in the effect of fame on the popularity of names. Popular celebrities regularly send names soaring, while scandal and crime seldom send them plummeting. Examples cited were Jeffrey Dahmer and Adolph Hitler, but feel free to look up Charles Manson, Roscoe Arbuckle, and many others who have gone down the road of infamy, rightly or wrongly. So what does it take to turn parents off a name?

Kobe Bryant was drafted into the National Basketball Association right out of high school in 1996. By the time he turned 24, he had helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to three NBA championships and was an international celebrity and sought-after commercial spokesman. The next year, 2003, he was charged with sexual assault. The media coverage was intense, and while Bryant was not convicted he did admit to adultery and his public image was tattered. To top it off, his team stopped winning. This dramatic rise and fall plays out in the name popularity charts:

The name lost half of it's appeal, virtually overnight. Why Kobe and not the others? Is it a question of race? (Bryant is black.) Is it because it was a new name, without the ballast of generations behind it? Is it because Bryant was the source of the name's popularity to begin with?

For clues, let's look at another dramatic name victim. Monica Lewinksy was no rapist or murderer, but her Oval Office escapades were big news in 1998. And her name fell off a cliff. Take a look:

That's a sheer 50% drop from 1997 to 1999, extraordinary for a top-100 name. (Especially extraordinary considering the countervailing influence of "Friends," a sitcom featuring a Monica which was hugely popular during those same years.)

So what's the lesson of this? We're more scandalized by sex than by violence? With a sample size of just two, we can only speculate. But here's one name wizard's theory.

Both Bryant and Lewinsky were routinely referred to in the media by their first names only: "the Monica interview," "the Kobe trial." (That tendency itself, of course, has plenty to do with the subject's age, race and especially sex.) Through repetition of first-name-only references the baggage attaches to the name itself, not just the individual. To sink a baby name, it may be that the severity of the crime matters less than how we talk about it.

The limits of fame

Jan 4th 2006

I often write about the influence of celebrities on name trends. From Shirley Temple in 1934 to Paris Hilton in 2004, hundreds of names have been propelled up the popularity charts by an individual's fame. But have you noticed how seldom I write about names sunk by celebrities? Shouldn't scandal and infamy drag a name down as surely as fame and fortune lift it up?

The short answer is simply no. Once a name is out circulating in society, it's hard to kill. Perhaps a common name has so many associations that a single individual can't defame it. Perhaps parents decide on a favorite name years in advance and don't want to give it up. Or perhaps they just gamble that the negative associations will be fleeting. (There's often truth to that. A relative of mine would have been named Marina except for Marina Oswald. Drawing a blank for a moment? Exactly.)

But there's another, pedestrian reason that it's hard to catch names getting killed off by infamy. Most were already dying natural deaths. After all, infamous villains are generally grownups...and the names of most grownups are on a downward slope.

For example, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news steadily for about a year starting in mid-1991. Sure enough, the popularity of the name Jeffrey fell by 23% from 1990 to 1992. But take a look at that drop in context:

Would you look at that graph and gasp "what happened in 1991?!" While it seems that some parents did change their name plans, the effect is diluted by the existing downward trend.

Even Adolph, one of the most historically stigmatized of all names, didn't drop as dramatically as you might think. Like most Germanic names, its U.S. popularity fell off after WWI. (Partially because of politics, partially because a fad for dense consonant-stuffed names had run its course.) But the name's decline after that was relatively slow and steady, given the course of history. WWII only bumped the name about 25% off its projected path:

Does that 25% drop represent an outer limit for a name's negative impact? After all, it's hard to imagine a name with more negative associations. As it turns out, though, there are other variables to consider -- and a few names have sunk like stones.

To be continued...

Celebrate with names

Dec 22nd 2005

For some families, the biggest gift of this holiday season will come wrapped in a receiving blanket.

Babies arrive 365 days a year. As you open presents or toast the new year, someone somewhere is laboring to deliver a child. The confluence of birthday and holiday can inspire parents to memorialize the occasion in a name.

In the United States, several familiar names have strong Christmas connotations. Common choices for yuletide babies:

Natalie/Natalia: from the Latin for birthday. (Think also of the words nativity, pre-natal, etc.) A natural choice to commemorate a birthdate shared with baby Jesus.

Noel/Noelle: The French name for Christmas, from the same root as Natalia.

Nicholas/Nick/Nicole/Nicola: In honor of St. Nick. (The name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch form of Nicholas.)

And some other possibilities:

Jasper/Casper/Gaspar: By tradition, one of the three Magi. (Adventurous parents could also consider Balthazar or Melchior.)

Kris: The Santa moniker Kris Kringle is believed to come from the German Christkindl, "Christ child"

Merry, Joy: From familiar Christmas salutations

Natasha: Russian pet form of Natalia

But Christmas isn't the only holiday that has inspired namesakes. In Jewish tradition, for instance, you can find names linked to days throughout the calendar. During Hanukah, popular contemporary choices include names meaning light such as Leora, Orly and Uri. Judah/Yehuda is also chosen in honor of Judah Maccabee.

Looking ahead to the Spring, a baby born during Passover might be named Eliahu for the prophet Elijah, or simply Pesach ("Passover"). Pesach is also the source of the word paschal ("pertaining to Passover or Easter"), which gave root to the popular Christian names Pascal/Pascual/Pasquale for babies born around Easter. And Easter itself used to be a modestly common English girl's name--during the heyday of Esther, a Purim name.

A New Year's celebration is an especially apt time to welcome a new life's beginning. The New Year starts on different dates in different cultures: Chinese, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim New Years are scattered across the calendar. But for all, some names suggesting fresh new beginnings:

Aurora (Roman goddess of dawn)
Genesis (from Greek for "origin")
Nova (from Latin for "new")
Newcombe/Newman (English surnames meaning new arrivals)
Renata/Renatus/Renee/Rene (from Latin for "reborn")
Sabah (from Arabic for "morning")
Usha (from Sanskrit for "dawn")
Walid (from Arabic for "newborn")

And finally, the date which looms largest on the naming calendar: February 1. The deadline for submitting your predictions to the Baby Name Pool. But no worries, you've already filled out your entry...right?

Thanks for reading, everyone! Wishing you all love, peace and joy.