These days, the baby name Alfie sees a lot more usage overseas than it does in America. That said, Alfie (and Alfy) were doing some interesting things on the U.S. baby name charts in the mid-1960s:
34 baby boys
57 baby boys [ranked 968th]
62 baby boys [ranked 915th]
16 baby boys
15 baby boys [debut]
(There was some female usage of Alfie during this time as well, but I didn’t include it in the table.)
Alfie‘s influence is easy enough to pinpoint, so let’s start there. In 1966, the well-received British movie Alfie came out — in March in the UK, and in August in the US. Michael Caine had the starring role as womanizer Alfie, and this proved to be the breakthrough role of his career.
The film — with lots of help from the theme song “Alfie,” which was recorded and released by multiple artists, including Dionne Warwick — pushed the baby name Alfie into the top U.S. 1,000, where it stuck around for just two years.
The explanation behind the sudden appearance of Alfy, a distinct spelling (and also the top one-hit wonder name for boys in 1966), took me a lot longer to figure out.
This one came from the short-lived teen soap opera Never Too Young, which aired on September of 1965 to June of 1966. It was set in Malibu and was narrated by the character Alfy, owner of the local beach hangout. He was played by British actor David Watson (whose first American TV appearance was on Rawhide with Clint Eastwood, aka Rowdy Yates).
One thing I find curious is that two fictional British characters named Alfie/Alfy emerged around the same time in American pop culture. The movie was an adaptation of the 1963 play Alfie by Bill Naughton…perhaps the play influenced the writers of the TV show as well?
Asked about his children’s unusual names, Robert attributes them to side effects he sustained from his college years when he subjected himself to medical tests to make extra money.
“Rocket is the first one. And once you name your first kid Rocket, you can’t name your next kid Marty. Racer, Rebel, Rogue…I’m just gonna blame this on the medical experiments. But they do have regular middle names in case they don’t want to start their own wrestling team.”
(An Australian celebrity named Lara Bingle has two sons named Rocket and Racer…perhaps in homage to Robert Rodriguez?)
A generation ago — when more families had six or more children — babies without official first names were surprisingly common. Overwhelmed new parents would leave the hospital without completing birth certificate paperwork.
But what once seemed like a quaint oddity becomes a serious inconvenience in a world of identity theft and terrorism. Today, governments demand birth certificates.
As more Baby Boomers reach retirement age, vital statistics offices — including at Boston City Hall — continue to receive a trickle of people whose birth certificates carry no first name. Boston officials estimated that in the 1950s, roughly 1 of every 25 birth certificates lacked a first name.
Born in the little town of New Ulm, Minn., in 1892, the daughter of Franz Xavier Ulrich, an Army hospital steward, Miss Ulric (she dropped the H from her last name) used to say that she was predestined for the stage. Her father gave her the name of Lenore because of his fondness for Poe’s poem, “The Raven,” and her childhood was devoted to theatrical yearnings.
Name expert Kunio Makino, as quoted in What to call baby? by Tomoko Otake in The Japan Times:
“I think people who come up with bizarre names for their children tend to feel that they couldn’t live the life they wanted to, and they feel that they have been hindered by many rules and restrictions. The only freedom they have at their disposal, they think, is the right to name their child.”
I leaned toward names made of calm, feminine sounds that never sounded like someone was yelling at you. The harsh K in Kathy conjured up my mother’s words for me: kigibe, keoji, shikkeuro. Korean for girl, beggar, and shut up. But I still wasn’t ready. I switched from Kathy to “Kate,” which felt like a small step, but not one nearly big enough.
Once the universe gave me the OK, a little space seemed to open up for the name to find me. And so it was that Héloïse fluttered into my head one day, devastatingly perfect. I’m not sure exactly where it came from. Perhaps some derivation of Luisita (a friend) or Elio (a boy I used to babysit). I guess I have a thing for L names. I honed it, trying it with and without the H and with and without the diacritics. I didn’t want them to be an affectation. Is it gauche to use French spelling if you don’t even speak French? Eff it, I went with the French.
Some change their names by truncation, some by hyphenation, others by amalgamation, others by invention. Some changes are banal, done for everyday reasons – a divorce, a marriage, a mistransliteration (an imprecise conversion from one alphabet to another) – while others are poignant, playful, even poetic.
When I asked people about their choice while reporting this story, virtually no one was glib. Many would go on and on, grateful to talk about a decision that cuts to the marrow of who they are. Others became tearful and, in some cases, shuddered audibly at the sound of their birth names. Some even declined to discuss the subject.