The Debuts of Dhahran & Riyadh

map of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia (Dhahran is very close to Dammam)

In 1991, the names Dhahran and Riyadh both debuted in the SSA’s baby name data:

19935 baby boys.
199113 baby boys [debut]9 baby boys [debut]

Riyadh has re-appeared in the data several times since, whereas Dhahran remains a one-hit wonder.

Where did they come from?

Well, literally speaking, Saudi Arabia. Both are the names of important Saudi Arabian cities. Riyadh is the country’s capital, and Dhahran is where the oil company Saudi Aramco is based.

But what turned them into baby names in the United States in the early 1990s specifically?

The news. Both cities were mentioned repeatedly in the American news during the Gulf War (Aug. 1990 to Feb. 1991) — particularly during the first two months of 1991, when Iraq was launching Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel. On February 25, for instance, a Scud missile fired at a U.S. Army barracks in Dhahran killed 28 U.S. soldiers (all reservists from Pennsylvania) and injured more than 100 others.

So, what do the place-names Dhahran and Riyadh mean?

The name Riyadh, in use since at least the 17th century, was derived from the Arabic word for “gardens” or “meadows” because the location is “a fertile spot just north of the confluence of the wadis Hanifa and Batha.”

The settlement of Dhahran, on the other hand, is much newer. It was constructed in the late 1930s “on who barren hills in the area” known in Arabic as dhahran (“two backs”).


2 thoughts on “The Debuts of Dhahran & Riyadh

  1. I wonder how many of those babies were born to military families with a personal connection to either Riyadh or Dhahran?

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