How popular is the baby name Debra in the United States right now? How popular was it historically? Find out using the graph below! Plus, see baby names similar to Debra and check out all the blog posts that mention the name Debra.
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The name Shalimar first appeared in the U.S. baby name data in 1954:
1957: 6 baby girls named Shalimar
1954: 5 baby girls named Shalimar
The inspiration here was not the famous perfume created by Guerlain in the 1920s, but a movie called Princess of the Nile released in mid-1954. It starred Debra Paget as an Egyptian Princess named Shalimar (who sometimes went incognito as a dancing girl known as Taura).
But the word Shalamar is not Egyptian. It comes from the famous Shalimar Gardens located in Pakistan. The gardens were created in the mid-1600s by Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal around the same time). “Shalamar” was derived from the Persian-Arabic phrase shah al-‘imarat, meaning “king of buildings.”
Elliott Arnold’s 1947 novel Blood Brother was a fictionalized account of the adventures of Old West historical figures Cochise, a Chiricahua Apache chief, and Tom Jeffords, a U.S. Indian agent.
The book was later adapted into a movie and a TV series, and both of these things ended up influencing U.S. baby names.
Sonseeahray & Debralee
The movie Broken Arrow was released in the summer of 1950. It starred Jeff Chandler as Cochise and James Stewart as Tom Jeffords. But the two baby names that debuted in the data thanks to the movie were associated with a different character: Sonseeahray, played by teenage actress Debra Paget.
Broken Arrow wasn’t Debra Paget’s first movie, but it was her first big hit, and it helped her achieve a new level of fame. And in 1951, her birth name Debralee debuted in the data. In fact, it was that year’s top debut name.
1955: 7 baby girls named Debralee
1954: 6 baby girls named Debralee
1953: 11 baby girls named Debralee
1952: 9 baby girls named Debralee
1951: 19 baby girls named Debralee [debut]
The public had become aware that Debra Paget was born “Debralee Griffin” in mid-1950, thanks to a newspaper article by AP journalist Hubbard Keavy, who called Debra’s birth name “improbable” (a curious comment, coming from guy named Hubbard Keavy). He quoted Debra’s mother, Margaret Griffin, as saying:
I christened her Debra. Her father’s people were Pagets. I used to call her Debra Lee, thinking that would be a good professional name. But Paget is more unusual and there are no Pagets in the movies.
Debra’s sister, Marcia Eloise Griffin, also acted under a stage name: Teala Loring.
The name of the character Sonseeahray also debuted in 1951:
1951: 7 baby girls named Sonseeahray [debut]
Sonseeahray, defined in the novel as “morning star,” seems to be legitimate Apache name; it was included and defined in the book Life Among the Apaches (1868) by John C. Cremony.
The TV series Broken Arrow first aired on ABC from 1956 to 1958. (Reruns aired in 1959 and 1960.) The show starred Michael Ansara as Cochise and John Lupton as Tom Jeffords. While it did not include the character Sonseeahray, an early episode did feature a Sonseeahray-like character named Marsheela.
Marsheela, played by actress Donna Martell, appeared in the episode “Apache Girl” in mid-1957. The same year, the name Marsheela was a one-hit wonder in the baby name data:
1957: 11 baby girls named Marsheela [debut]
I figured out the source of this one only after posting about Marsheila, which was the most-used spelling of Marsheela that year (no doubt because of the familiarity of the Irish name Sheila, which was a top-100 girl name in the U.S. throughout the ’50s and ’60s).
Another one-hit wonder was the surname of Arab-American actor Michael Ansara. Five baby boys were named Ansara in 1960:
1960: 5 baby boys named Ansara [debut]
Though Broken Arrow had made Michael Ansara a household name, this debut lines up more cleanly with a later TV Western that Ansara also starred in: Law of the Plainsman, which lasted from 1959 to 1960.
His surname may be based on the Arabic term al-ansar, meaning “the helpers.”
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:
22,153 [rank: 13th]
24,095 [rank: 10th]
26,737 [rank: 8th]
25,265 [rank: 10th]
31,371 [rank: 7th]
19,553 [rank: 9th]
35,520 [rank: 6th]
32,940 [rank: 7th]
42,734 [rank: 4th]
40,062 [rank: 6th]
48,299 [rank: 2nd]
47,830 [rank: 4th]
50,541 [rank: 4th]
52,314 [rank: 2nd]
45,894 [rank: 6th]
54,685 [rank: 3rd]
36,856 [rank: 7th]
52,188 [rank: 3rd]
26,832 [rank: 9th]
49,808 [rank: 4th]
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?
Peaches Jackson was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1930s. She was born in New York in 1913. Her birth name was Charlotte Jackson. Peaches was also a character played by actress May West in the film Every Day’s a Holiday (1937).
Peavey was a character played by actress Olive Borden in the film Leave It to Me (1933).
Peg Entwistle was an actress who appeared in one film in 1932 (and, the same year, committed suicide by jumping off the H of the Hollywoodland sign). She was born in Wales in 1908. Her birth name was Millicent Lilian Entwistle. Peg was also a character played by actress Anna Neagle in the film Peg of Old Drury (1935).
Peggy Pearce (born a Velma) was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1920s. She was born in California in 1894. Peggy Cartwright was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1930s. She was born in Canada in 1912. Peggy Moran (Mary) was an actress who appeared in films from the 1930s to the 1940s. She was born in Iowa in 1918. Peggy Ryan (Margaret) was an actress who appeared in films from the 1930s to the 1940s. She was born in California in 1924. Finally, Peggy was also a character name in multiple films including Peggy Lynn, Burglar (short 1915) and Confessions of a Co-Ed (1931).
Pert Pert Kelton was an actress who appeared in films from the 1920s to the 1960s. She was born in Montana in 1907. Pert was also a character name in multiple films, including Danger! Women at Work (1943) and Take It Big (1944).
Pervaneh was a character played by actress Greta Nissen in the film The Lady of the Harem (1926).
Petal Schultze was a character played by actress Amy Veness in the film Red Wagon (1933).
Phyllis Gordon was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1940s. She was born in Virginia in 1889. Phyllis Haver was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1930s. She was born in Kansas in 1899. Phyllis Thaxter was an actress who appeared in films from the 1940s to the 1970s. She was born in Maine in 1919. Finally, Phyllis was also a character name in multiple films, including Just Like a Woman (short, 1915) and Wagons Westward (1940).
Pinna Nesbit was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1920s. She was born in Canada in 1896.
Piquette was a character played by actress Shannon Day in the film Honor First (1922).
Plutina was a character played by actress Clara Kimball Young in the film The Heart of the Blue Ridge (1915).
Pola Negri was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1960s. She was born in Poland in 1897. Her birth name was Barbara Apolonia Chałupec. Pola was also a character played by actress Elizabeth Allan in the film Insult (1932).
Pompeia Plotina was a character played by actress Caroline Frances Cooke in the short film In the Days of Trajan (1913).
Pompilia was a character played by actress Marie Newton in the short film The Ring and the Book (1914).
Pomposia was a character played by actress Helen Ware in the film The Warrior’s Husband (1933).
Poppaea was a character name in multiple films, including Nero (1922) and The Sign of the Cross (1932).
Portland Fancy was a character played by actress Juliet Brenon in the film The Street of Forgotten Men (1925). (Plus there’s radio actress Portland Hoffa was most active during the ’30s and ’40s.)
The ratio of Biblical names to non-Biblical names in the girl’s top 20 is about the same today as it was 100 years ago, though the ratio did change a bit mid-century.
(In contrast, there’s been a steady increase in the number of Biblical-origin names among the top boy names.)
Here’s the color-coded table — Biblical names are in the yellow cells, non-Biblical names are in the green cells, and several borderline names (which I counted as non-Biblical) are in the orange cells:
27%-73% is remarkably similar to both 25%-75% (smaller 2014 sample) and 30%-70% (1914 sample).
So here’s the question of the day: If you had to choose all of your children’s names from either one group or the other — Biblical names or non-Biblical names — which group would you stick to, and why?