The SSound of a Decade?

Nov 14th 2013

As rumors recently swirled of a royal engagement between England's Prince Harry and one Cressida Bonas, I was approached with questions about the name Cressida. How much fashion potential does it have?

Cressida is an old and rare name, most familiar from Shakespeare's play Troilus and Cressida and from the Toyota Cressida sedan, now long out of production. Yet when I was asked, my immediate reaction was that the name Cressida, while attractive in many ways, would probably be held back by its '80s vibe.

But this is a rare Shakespearean name. It wasn't at all popular in the 1980s. How could it possibly give off an "'80s vibe'"?

No, it's not just about the car. (The Toyota Cressida was the '80s counterpart to today's Avalon.) It's about the sound and spelling: a double s and an -a ending. Take a look at the popularity history of names that fit that description:

That's a heaping helping of '80s, with '70s and '90s on the side. You may never have noticed the generational gathering of names like Melissa, Jessica, Cassandra and Vanessa, but the trend was nonetheless powerful enough to give any name with the ss & -a combo an aura of feathered hair.

If the ss name in question had been a nickname instead of a formal -a name, it would have rolled back the clock to the previous high point of ss names. The late 19th Century was the age of Bessie, Flossie and friends. Even Jessie, which we think of today as a nickname for 1980s queen Jessica, was actually an 1880s queen as a given name (from a Scottish pet form of Jean):

In the long ss & -a names, the double ss is like the rustle of lace on the train of a gown. Today that rustle has been hushed in favor of well-oiled letters like nn (Arianna) and ll (Gabriella). A Shakesperean royal name-to-be along those lines -- Mariana, perhaps, or Celia? -- would be a safer bet to inspire a flowing train of namesakes.

Naming With the Seasons, 21st-Century Style

Nov 7th 2013

Way back in 2005 I wrote about a name trend that came straight from the calendar -- if you flipped pages in your calendar once every 50 years. Month names for girls changed at that pace, with May peaking in the 1870s, June in the 1920s, and April in the 1970s.

OK, maybe the naming calendar doesn't follow the exact order of the Gregorian calendar, but the pattern is unmistakable. Here's the graph I posted back then:

After April, though, we ran out of the simple, sunny months of spring. So I mused on the options to continue the cycle:

"One possibility is to start over at May, a name which seems due for a renaissance. Another is to branch out into more adventurous seasons...And there's one other possibility, which is already hitting its stride. In the past generation, parents have started to throw over the months in favor of whole seasons: Summer and Autumn are still climbing, and Winter has time for a surprise strike by the '20s to come."

Eight years later, do we see any indications of a seasonal future? Perhaps. One of the old spring favorites is indeed showing signs of a renaissance. It's not May, though, but June, which fits the classic 100-year name lifecycle:

But I'll come out right now and say, with a decade to go, that June won't add a fourth towering peak to the mountain range of the original graph. Those slopes are too hard to climb today. Just take a look at both of today's season names, Summer and Autumn, compared to 1800s hit May:

Yet the march through the seasons hasn't quite seen its last. This past year, that long shot Winter cracked the top 1000 for the first time ever.



Naming a Scream Queen: Carrie, Then and Now

Oct 30th 2013

The young, deadly stars of horror movies have a long history as baby name trendmakers. Damien of The Omen, Regan of The Exorcist, and Gage of Pet Sematary are all examples of what I once called "Satan's stylish spawn." But if there's one name that embodies youthful cinematic bloodshed, it has to be Carrie.

For those who missed the mayhem, Carrie was a harassed high school student at the center of Stephen King's first novel. Pushed too far, she developed telekinetic powers that broke loose in a blood-drenched prom. (Some pig blood, some human blood, plenty of mess.)

The name Carrie bears the whole franchise on its back. It's the full title of King's 1974 novel, Brian De Palma's 1976 film version, and further adaptations including a remake that just hit theaters in time for Halloween.

A reader named Carrie recently wrote to me about her name's relationship to the horror icon:

"I'm a Carrie born in the mid 70's and was one of those people that went by Carrie R my entire school career. There were at least 2 Kari/Carrie/Kerri's in every class....Is it correlated to the initial book/movie Carrie?"

While the popularity of the name Carrie did peak around the time of the original film, that wasn't the source of the name's surge. A broader Carrie-fest was already underway. The film's release (November, 1976) is seen as the orange line in the popularity graph below:

That name graph looks very different from the timelines of Damien and friends. Carrie had a different kind of name, because Carrie represented a different kind of horror. Her desire and power to spill blood didn't spring from demonic possession, satanic DNA, or any kind of otherworldly evil. She was a victim of an all-too-human wrong.

Carrie's telekinesis was a physical manifestation of a buildup of emotional pressure from years of emotional abuse and taunting. King's novel was an anti-bullying tract drenched in blood. He suggested that what happened to Carrie could happen again, if kids continued to be tormented. So unlike the forboding names typical of horror movies, his protagonist's name was pointedly normal.

The name Carrie in particular was a cannily disarming choice. As a diminutive nickname, it comes across as friendly and guileless. Compare to other similarly popular names of the time like Monica, Shannon and Tanya, and you see how well King named his victimized everygirl. What's more, Carrie is nearly unique among the hit names of the '70s in being a Victorian revival. Here's the view since 1900:

That history laid an undercurrent of sweet, timeless girlhood beneath the name's trendy sound.

So what was sweet Victorian Carrie doing on the 1970s top-40 charts? I think reader Carrie was on the right track when she placed the name in a generational sound grouping that also encompassed Kerri and Kari, along with Kara, Kristi and and friends. (As a New Englander, though, I can't hear Carrie and Kerri as sound-alikes. I'm one of those regional pedants who insist that Mary, merry and marry are all different.)

Take a look at the Kerry name family's '70s heyday:

Would the horror classic Carrie come across the same to us if it had been called Kerri? It's a small difference, but I believe that the more traditional name, and the fact that it's a nickname, helps keep the story rooted in the eternal trials of adolescence.

Over time, while most names of the '70s started to show their age, Carrie remained surprisingly close to the name Stephen King chose 40 years ago. From Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw to American Idol champion Carrie Underwood, Carrie continued to stand for the relatable everywoman...minus the pig's blood.