The character of those names was shaped in the 1950s and '60s by the Hollywood "beefcake" wave. Young actors like Troy Donahue, Chad Everett, Rock Hudson, Clint Walker and Tab Hunter made up a new, shirtless generation of heartthrobs. Remarkably, all of those stars – and all of those names – were the products of one man's focused vision.
Hollywood agent Henry Willson was the acknowledged king of beefcake. Willson would spot a handsome young men on the street and hand him a business card, promising to get him into show business. Acting talent was no prerequisite. The agent would retool his discoveries from the ground up, polishing their manners, speech and appearance, inventing manly backstories, and of course bestowing new names. He was creating a masculine fantasy for American women, presumably based on an ideal of his own. (Willson, who was gay, was notorious for his "casting couch.")
The story of "Henry's boys" is well known as a chapter of Hollywood history. What hasn’t been told is the story of how Willson and his vision of manliness shaped the history of baby names.
Willson's beefcake recipe was precise. It called for a smooth-featured young man with a long, square-jawed face, and an energetic one-syllable first name followed by a rugged two/three-syllable surname:
Photos: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Some more highlights from Willson's roster of custom-named clients:
Today, the Willson names sound like clichés. They're the kind of formula-hunk names skewered by The Simpsons' "actor Troy McClure" and mimicked by countless gay porn stars. But it was Willson who defined that formula, and parents responded to its allure.
Take a look at the baby name impact of two of Willson's protégés, Troy Donahue and Chad Everett. The dates of the actors' breakout roles are indicated in red. (Chad Everett had two tiers of breakout, a film role that got him noticed and later a hit tv series.)
Those two star-sparked trends alone named hundreds of thousands of American babies. You can trace smaller but similar curves for many other Willson names including Ty Hardin, Rock Hudson and Guy Madison. It was Willson product Clint Walker, not Clint Eastwood, who made Clint a hot new cowboy name of the '50s.
I think the impact of the beefcake king might run even deeper. Willson didn't just dream up individual names, he created a style. Names like Troy, Tab, Guy, Rock and Chad became the model of modern, all-American appeal. That appeal had to rub off on names like Scott, Dirk, Dean, Tad and Lance that took off around the same time. Put them all together and you have the distinctive sound of a generation, thanks to one man with an eye for a strong jaw, and an ear for a hunky name.
Baby naming has changed, and a popular name isn't what it used to be. I talk about those themes a lot, but today I'd like to offer a stark, simple illustration. The charts below show the popularity of the top 10 names of three very different years:
• 1900, the end of the Victorian era and the dawn of a new century;
• 1957, two generations and two world wars later and the height of the baby boom;
• 2014, another two generations later and the most current year of baby name statistics.
Compare for yourself:
First off, it's hard to miss the dramatic downsizing of this generation of names. Today's #1 boy's name is only half as popular as the #10 baby boom name. By standards of past generations, you could even say that no names are popular today.
Looking closer, the shapes of the curves have also changed. Back in 1900, the very top of the chart dominated. The #1 name Mary in particular was more than twice as popular as any other girl's name. In 1957, the top 10 names accounted for roughly the same percentage of babies, but more evenly distributed.
I see this as a movement from a tradition-guided consensus to a style-guided consensus. The 1900 names (particularly the boys) still follow the traditional English pattern, with John and Mary presiding over the classic regal names. By 1957 parents were seeking a new sound, but they didn't go out on a limb. Instead, they moved en masse to names that were modern in style but simple and familiar, like David and Steven. Today's curve is notably flat, as parents aim to name differently from their neighbors.
Perhaps the most surprising change, though, is about gender. Look at the total percentages of babies represented by each year's top 10:
Traditionally, parents have named sons more conservatively than daughters. Boys' names went in and out of fashion slowly, and the core traditional names were favored for their solidity. Girls' names, in contrast, were more likely to be objects of fashion. Today, that difference has vanished. We approach boys' and girls' names alike with style-conscious creativity, making "popular" names an ever more endangered species.
The total picture is of huge movements of culture with shifting perspectives, expectations and values. Today's list points to a more image-obsessed, competitive culture, but also a more egalitarian culture with greater freedom of expression. And you can see it all in the simplest of name stats: three years' top 10 lists.
Why is Addison now a girl's name while Harrison is still all male? The answer is in the nicknames. Addison trims down to girlish Addie, Harrison to boyish Harry.
In the new unisex world of surname baby names, a name's root can be destiny. Names like Jefferson and Finnegan are anchored to the male side by the familiar nicknames Jeff and Finn. Even without nicknames, a hard-edged start can make a name like Braxton distinctly male.
If you like surnames with a classically masculine sound, check out the names below. All are familiar as surnames but uncommon as baby names, and are built off roots that signal "boy." Those roots set the names' style for today, and make them likely bets to keep that style for the long term.
Clark Kent baby names: nickname as alter ego