The word Sway popped up for the first time in the U.S. baby name data in 2001:
2003: 14 baby girls and 5 baby boys named Sway
2002: 12 baby girls named Sway
2001: 8 baby girls named Sway [debut]
For a long time I assumed the main influence was MTV personality Sway Calloway. But, while I still think Sway had an influence on male usage, I’ve since discovered a much better explanation for the 2001 debut as a female name.
One of the main characters in the 2000 car heist film Gone in 60 Seconds was mechanic-slash-bartender Sara “Sway” Wayland (played by Angelina Jolie). She was the love interest of protagonist Randall “Memphis” Raines (played by Nicolas Cage), who was tasked with stealing 50 specific, expensive cars inside of 72 hours.
The film didn’t get great reviews, but I do remember appreciating the fact that each of the 50 cars was assigned a feminine code-name:
After Hoda asked how he and Blake came up with the name of their third (a clever way to get the actor to publicly confirm what the name actually is), Reynolds quipped, “We haven’t yet! We’re gonna be original, and all the letters in her name are silent.” […] He continued, “I want to give her something to push against in life.”
You can even see how the zeitgeist of the age affected American’s [sic] desire for novelty. As Matthew W. Hahn and Alexander Bentley found, the incidence of new, unusual names rose in the 20s, peaked around 1930, but then plummeted in the 40s and 50s. Then it shot up again in the 60s, before reversing and plummeting again in the late 70s. Why? If you wanted to engage in some armchair zeitgeist analysis, you could argue that this makes a crude sort of cultural sense: The “roaring 20s” and the 60s were both periods when significant subsets of the population treasured creative, rule-breaking behavior; the 50s and early 80s weren’t.
When it came to deciding what to call the chain, [Dave Thomas] tried out the names of all five of his children before he settled on the nickname for his daughter, Melinda, which was Wendy.
Before my dad left us [in 2002], we had a long conversation about him naming the restaurant Wendy’s. It was the first time we’d ever had this conversation. He said, “You know what? I’m sorry.” I asked him what he meant. He explained, “I should’ve just named it after myself, because it put a lot of pressure on you.”
Marlie-Mae, Gracie-Mae, Mila-Mae… you may have noticed the trend.
Aussie celebs are giving their baby girls hyphenated names with a sweet, old-fashioned sound. The Bachelor’s Matty J and Laura Byrne went for Marlie-Mae, Bachelor In Paradise’s Simone Ormesher and partner Matt Thorne chose Gracie-Mae, while Married at First Sight’s Davina Rankin and boyfriend Jaxon Manuel decided on Mila-Mae.
Although these names might sound American – think Elly May Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies – this is actually a huge British trend that seems to be just taking off in Australia.
The Edge of Night (1956-1984) was a television soap opera with heavy crime drama elements (e.g., courtroom scenes). It was based directly on the radio drama Perry Mason (1943-1955). In fact, the central character of EoN — a police officer/lawyer named Mike Karr — was played by actor John Larkin, who had been the voice of Perry during the last eight years of the radio show.
EoN was a popular soap, ranking anywhere from 2nd to 6th from its inception until the early 1970s. More importantly, though, several EoN characters/actors ended up influencing the U.S. baby name charts.
First we have Teal, which debuted in the data in 1957:
1962: 24 baby girls named Teal
1961: 35 baby girls named Teal
1960: 28 baby girls named Teal
1959: 21 baby girls named Teal
1958: 28 baby girls named Teal
1957: 14 baby girls named Teal [debut]
Teal was inspired by actress Teal Ames, who played Mike’s girlfriend/wife Sara Karr on the show from 1956 to 1961. When Teal decided to quit show business, the character was killed off Edge of Night in a car crash. “CBS received so many anxious and hysterical calls after this episode that actress Teal Ames had to go on the air the following day to assure her fans that she was still very much alive.”
(That said, another potential influence on the name was Japanese-American jazz singer Teal Joy — real name Elsie Itashiki — who put out an album and started appearing on TV in late 1957.)
Next is Laurieann, which debuted in 1959. (And, a year later, the similar name Laurieanne popped up.)
1964: 25 baby girls named Laurieann
1963: 39 baby girls named Laurieann
1962: 35 baby girls named Laurieann
1961: 23 baby girls named Laurieann
1960: 21 baby girls named Laurieann
1959: 5 baby girls named Laurieann [debut]
No doubt Laurieann and Laurieanne were given a nudge by Laurie, which was at peak popularity in the early ’60s (perhaps thanks to Piper Laurie). But the more direct influence was fictional Laurie Ann Karr, Mike and Sara’s only daughter, who was born in the storyline in September of 1959.
Ratings for EoN weren’t as good from the mid-1970s onward, but by then the show was becoming known for something entirely different: unusual character names. These included Taffy, Lobo, Morlock, Cookie, Gunther, Didi, Smiley, Raven, and Schuyler. (Raven and Sky were a couple, of course.) And several of these unusual names got a boost in real life, thanks to the show.
For instance, character Draper Scott was featured in the storyline from 1975 to 1981. The baby name Draper re-emerged in the SSA data in 1976 and saw peak usage in 1980:
1981: 40 baby boys named Draper
1980: 46 baby boys named Draper
1979: 39 baby boys named Draper
1978: 36 baby boys named Draper
1977: 35 baby boys named Draper
1976: 15 baby boys named Draper
And female character Winter Austin, who was on the show from 1978 to 1979, pushed the baby name Winter into the top 1,000 for the first time in the late ’70s:
1980: 140 baby girls named Winter
1979: 241 baby girls named Winter [rank: 705th]
1978: 137 baby girls named Winter [rank: 1,000th]
1977: 29 baby girls named Winter
Were you a regular viewer of The Edge of Night? Did you have any opinions on the character names?
Has some grumpy person ever called you a “Pollyanna”? That person may have meant it pejoratively, but take it as a compliment! (And tell that grump to go take a nap.) Because for over a century now the name has been a vocabulary word with a seriously pleasant meaning: “an excessively cheerful or optimistic person.”
So how did the compound name come to have that meaning? With the help of a popular book from the 1910s.
Pollyanna (1913) by Eleanor H. Porter was the first in a series of books about Pollyanna Whittier, one of the famous optimistic orphans of literature. (Think Anne of Green Gables, or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.) But Pollyanna Whittier, “a girl who preaches the gospel of Gladness,” was the most optimistic of them all:
After her father’s death, the orphan moves to Beldingsville, Vt. In the next hundred pages, this juvenile social worker persuades the whole town to play the Glad Game. Cranky Mr. Pendleton, the bedridden Mrs. Snow, the dispirited Reverend Ford, the forlorn Dr. Chilton, a loose woman contemplating divorce and (finally) her sclerotic aunt succumb to the power of positive thinking and begin to hunt for and find things to be glad about.
The original Pollyanna book was the 8th-bestselling book of 1913 and the 2nd-bestselling book of 1914. It was so successful that Porter turned it into a series, starting with the sequel Pollyanna Grows Up (1915), which ranked 4th on the bestseller list in 1915.
As one critic explained in 1947, “The publication of the story in 1913 was only less influential than the World War. White Mountain cabins, Colorado teahouses, Texas babies, Indiana apartment houses, and a brand of milk were immediately named for the new character.”
The critic mentioned Texas specifically because a Texas baby named for the character (Pollyanna Houston, born in Waco) was in the news in 1915. But babies elsewhere got the name as well. Here’s the SSA data for the usage of Pollyanna during the 1910s:
1919: 15 baby girls named Pollyanna
1918: 13 baby girls named Pollyanna
1917: 21 baby girls named Pollyanna
1916: 20 baby girls named Pollyanna
1915: 12 baby girls named Pollyanna
1914: 6 baby girls named Pollyanna [debut]
And here’s the SSDI data for the same window of time:
1919: 10 Pollyannas
1918: 9 Pollyannas
1917: 15 Pollyannas
1916: 18 Pollyannas
1915: 11 Pollyannas
1914: 3 Pollyannas
1913: 6 Pollyannas
1912: 2 Pollyannas
The greatest usage of the name came in the 1960s, with the Disney movie adaptation of the book…but we’ll talk more about that (and the name Hayley!) tomorrow.
Until then, why not leave me a comment with your thoughts on the baby name Pollyanna? Do you think it’s usable these days?
“Books.” Gazette Globe [Kansas City, Kansas] 18 Feb. 1915: 4.