The Rise of Deborah

deborah kerr, 1947, magazine
Deborah Kerr, cover of Time, early 1947

Right on the heels of Cheryl, the baby name Deborah skyrocketed in usage during the late ’40s and early ’50s:

  • 1952: 49,808 baby girls named Deborah [rank: 4th]
  • 1951: 42,060 baby girls named Deborah [rank: 4th]
  • 1950: 29,067 baby girls named Deborah [rank: 7th]
  • 1949: 19,208 baby girls named Deborah [rank: 15th]
  • 1948: 11,245 baby girls named Deborah [rank: 30th]
  • 1947: 5,838 baby girls named Deborah [rank: 62nd]
  • 1946: 2,470 baby girls named Deborah [rank: 119th]
  • 1945: 1,464 baby girls named Deborah [rank: 161st]
  • 1944: 1,293 baby girls named Deborah [rank: 168th]

It peaked at 2nd place (behind Mary) in 1955.

Deborah, based on the ancient Hebrew word for “bee,” had already been on a slow and steady rise. So what fueled the explosion?

I’d say the one-two punch of actresses Deborah Kerr and Debra Paget.

Scottish-born Deborah Kerr, who had been in films since the early 1940s, didn’t became one of the biggest names in Hollywood until later in the decade. (Her surname rhymes with car; MGM cleverly came up with the line, “Kerr rhymes with star.”)

Kerr ended up in some of the most financially successful movies of the era, such as King Solomon’s Mines (1950), Quo Vadis (1951), From Here to Eternity (1953), and The King and I (1956) with Yul Brynner.

Denver-born* Debra Paget, a starlet of the 1950s, also appeared in some big films such as the top-grossing movie of the decade, The Ten Commandments (1956). The same year she appeared opposite Elvis Presley in Love Me Tender (1956).

Though many variants of Deborah were being used around that time, Debra saw particular success, thanks to Paget. In fact, Debra surpassed Deborah in usage for five years in a row:

Year Debra usage Deborah usage
1961 22,153 [rank: 13th] 24,095 [rank: 10th]
1960 26,737 [rank: 8th] 25,265 [rank: 10th]
1959 31,371 [rank: 7th] 19,553 [rank: 9th]
1958 35,520 [rank: 6th] 32,940 [rank: 7th]
1957 42,734 [rank: 4th] 40,062 [rank: 6th]
1956 48,299 [rank: 2nd] 47,830 [rank: 4th]
1955 50,541 [rank: 4th] 52,314 [rank: 2nd]
1954 45,894 [rank: 6th] 54,685 [rank: 3rd]
1953 36,856 [rank: 7th] 52,188 [rank: 3rd]
1952 26,832 [rank: 9th] 49,808 [rank: 4th]
1951 17,074 [rank: 18th] 42,060 [rank: 4th]

(Interesting fact: One of the babies named for Debra Paget was future actress Debra Winger, born in 1955.)

The occupational surname Paget, a diminutive form of the word page (a “youth employed as a personal attendant to a person of rank”), was also appearing in the SSA’s data as a girl around this time. It debuted in 1948, the year Debra Paget appeared in her first film, Cry of the City.

Which spelling do you prefer, the traditional Deborah or the streamlined Debra?

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Sources: Deborah Kerr – Wikipedia, Debra Paget – Wikipedia, Page – Online Etymology Dictionary

*These Rams were installed in Denver three years after Debra was born.


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