As the remake of the miniseries Roots hits the air, America is remembering the impact of the 1977 original. 40 years later, how can we understand the enormous cultural force it carried? Let's try one of the most reliable barometers of America's mindset: baby names.
In 1977 television was a three-network business, dominated by sitcoms like "Happy Days" and "Three's Company" with a smattering of "Little House on the Prairie" and "The Love Boat." Yet the most popular program by far was an eight-part miniseries that told the tragic story of American slavery through the lens of a single family. Roots was an adaptation of a novel by Alex Haley. It followed the saga of Kunta Kinte, a 15-year-old West African boy captured into slavery, portrayed by actor LeVar Burton. A key later character was Kunta's daughter, named Kizzy.
Image via ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images
Kunta Kinte and Kizzy weren't the likeliest baby names, but they captured parents' hearts. The graphs below show the American popularity of the names from 1970 through 1980, including minor spelling variations (and in the case of Kunta Kinte, both parts of the name). The red vertical lines show the year Roots premiered.
Those are extraordinary leaps. Kizzy jumped all the way from statistically non-existent to the #223 girl's name in America -- and the spelling Kizzie ranked #598. That's a higher debut than Miley 30 years later, when Riley and Kylee were already fast-rising hits. Consider, too, that the #1 movie of 1977 was a little flick called Star Wars. When it came to baby names, Roots eclipsed it.
Put the four name graphs together, and you have 8,000 namesakes born in the years immediately following Roots. A scattering of other names show up in the statistics as well, including Omoro, the name of Kunta Kinte's father, and Ji-Tu, after actor Ji-Tu Cumbuka. But even those names only scratch the surface of the story.
Roots wasn't just an entertainment, it was a societal milestone that struck deep chords of race, identity and history. The show's baby name effect, too, wasn't about mere publicity. (Note that one prominently featured name, Toby, the name which Kunta Kinte was forced to accept as a slave, actually fell in popularity in 1977.) For many African-Americans, Roots inspired deeper explorations of African cuture, including African-inspired baby names. Names like Aisha, Omari, and Akilah rose.
Even new name inventions were affected. For instance, contemporary African-American boys' names using Le- and La- as a prefix, a la LeVar Burton, hit their all-time peak in 1977. The name Kunta Kinte, too, was echoed in a generation of African-American boys' names ending in -nta and -nte, like Donta and Javonte. The trend had already started before Roots, but Kunta Kinte accelerated it:
The real societal impact of a show like Roots isn't so much the story itself as the echoes it leaves behind. We see some of those echoes in today's proudly diverse naming culture, in which every name -- sometimes, every syllable -- reflects parents' sense of self, heritage, values and dreams.
Jagger. Hendrix. Zeppelin. Lennon. Those names mean more than music. They're icons, attitudes, whole ways of living…and now, baby names. Names steeped in rock & roll history, from the Beatles to Nirvana, are one of the fastest-rising baby name styles in America.
Photo by Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Some snapshots of the trend in action:
• An American girl today is more likely to be named Presley than Jessica or Rebecca. A boy is more likely to be Axl than Chad.
• As recently as 1998, the name Hendrix was statistically nonexistent. Today it's a top-500 hit.
• The word credence, meaning "belief," is not used as a name. But the creative spelling Creedence, as in the band Creedence Clearwater Revival, is now used for both boys and girls.
• Last year, just as many American girls were named Zeppelin as Beyoncé.
• Even stylistically unlikely rock names like Kiedis and Reznor now register on the stats.
The rise of rock & roll names is a phenomenon unto itself, distinct from "celebrity names." Normal celebrity name trends surge with the burst of publicity around a new star. Most go on to fade nearly as quickly (see the graphs of Miley and Rihanna). The rock names are different. Not one name on the rock & roll names list below took off when the band or star rose to fame. Beatlemania didn't inspire little McCartneys, and the grunge era didn't see a wave of little Vedders. The names rose decades later, after the artists' works had begun to take on the mantle of "classic" or "iconic."
That makes these names homages, not only to the specific artists but to the spirit of rock itself. It's a famously independent, rebellious spirit, and so no two names on the list march in lockstep. Consider the varied messages the names Axl, Lennon, Marley and Cobain project. But whether a family's motto is "All You Need is Love" or "Born to Be Wild," they're more likely than ever before to present it in baby name form via a classic rock name.
Each name below was bestowed on at least 5 American boys or girls last year, some on hundreds or thousands. Especially popular names are indicated with an * (top 1000 name) or ** (top 500).
THE NEW ROCK & ROLL BABY NAME HALL OF FAME:
Axl (M*) – Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses
Bonham (M) – John Bonham of Led Zeppelin
Bowie (M, F) – David Bowie
Cobain (M) – Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
Creedence (M, F) – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Crue (M) – Mötley Crüe
Everly (F**, M) – The Everly Brothers
Halen (M, F) – Van Halen/Eddie Van Halen
Hendrix (M**, F) – Jimi Hendrix
Isley (F, M) – The Isley Brothers
Jagger (M*, F) – Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones
Jett (M**, F) – Joan Jett
Joplin (F) – Janis Joplin
Kiedis (M) – Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers
Lennon (F*, M*) – John Lennon of The Beatles
Marley (F**, M*) – Bob Marley
McCartney (F, M) – Paul McCartney of The Beatles
Nirvana (F) – Nirvana
Presley (F**, M) – Elvis Presley
Reznor (M) – Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails
Santana (M*, F) – Santana/Carlos Santana
Seger (M) – Bob Seger
Vedder (M) – Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam
Weiland (M) – Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots
Zeppelin (M, F) – Led Zeppelin
Meet the freshest new baby names in America. We call them the "100 Club," the select group of names that were given to 100 newborn boys or girls for the first time ever this past year.
The names in this Club show off the diversity of American baby name style, from nature names to video game heroes, from the Bible to Bollywood. Together, they give us a glimpse of where names may be heading. Many of these names will remain rare, but some – like recent 100 Club members Lennox, Castiel and Zayn – will rise to become hits.
Some notable themes among this year's 100 Club names:
Royals and Deities
Girls: Artemis, Kingsley, Royalty. Boys: Kaiser, Kyng, Pharaoh, Reign, Zeus [Read more about the rapid rise of exalted names]
Azriel, Benaiah, Elam, Jasiel
Berkeley, Brighton, Charleston
Alaia, Amyra, Analeah, Arayah [Read more about "liquid names"]
Caspian (Chronicles of Narnia), Korra (The Legend of Korra), Link (The Legend of Zelda)
THE GIRLS' 100 CLUB
THE BOYS' 100 CLUB