The baby name Makeba started appearing in the U.S. baby name data in the early 1960s:
1966: 8 baby girls named Makeba
1964: 5 baby girls named Makeba
1963: 5 baby girls named Makeba
1962: 5 baby girls named Makeba
It saw peak usage in the early 1970s.
What launched the name?
South African singer Miriam Makeba, who was born near Johannesburg in 1932 to a Xhosa father and a Swazi mother.
Her birth name was actually Zenzile, nickname Zenzi. (The English name Miriam was adopted later for career purposes.) According to Makeba, the name Zenzile means “you have no one to blame but yourself” or “you have done it to yourself.”
But “Zenzile Makeba” wasn’t her full name. Her full name was Zenzile Makeba Qgwashu Nguvama Yiketheli Nxgowa Bantana Balomzi Xa Ufun Ubajabulisa Ubaphekcli Mbiza Yotshwala Sithi Xa Saku Qgiba Ukutja Sithathe Izitsha Sizi Kkabe Singama Lawu Singama Qgwashu Singama Nqamla Nqgithi.
Why so long?
The reason for its length is that every child takes the first name of all his male ancestors. Often following the first name is a descriptive word or two, telling; about the character of the person, making a true African name somewhat like a story. This may sound most unusual to Americans, but it is the custom of my people.
Miriam Makeba began singing professionally in the early 1950s. In the late ’50s she met famous Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte, who introduced her to American audiences. Her fame grew (both in the U.S. and in Europe) during the ’60s, and she became “the first African artist to globally popularize African music.”
I haven’t had any luck tracking down the etymology of Makeba, but I know the name came from Miriam’s mother, Nomkomendelo Christina Makeba. The name Nomkomendelo means “the one whose father was commandeered” (as she was born on the day her father was forced to join the British army to help fight the Second Boer War).
Do you like the name Makeba?
Makeba, Miriam and Nomsa Mwamuka. Makeba: The Miriam Makeba Story. Johannesburg: STE Publishers, 2004.
Here’s a curious one: Buff. It appeared in the SSA data in the middle of the 20th century as both a boy name and a girl name — but slightly more often as a girl name. The female usage was entirely in the 1950s:
1959: 5 baby girls named Buff
1956: 6 baby girls named Buff
1955: 15 baby girls named Buff
1954: 10 baby girls named Buff
1953: 6 baby girls named Buff
1952: 5 baby girls named Buff [debut]
What was the influence here?
An actress with an intriguingly gender-neutral name: Buff Cobb.
She was born Patrizia Chapman in Italy in 1927 to American parents. When she decided in her teens to become a film star, she created the stage name “Buff Cobb” from her mother’s nickname, Buffy, and her maternal grandfather’s surname, Cobb. (He was writer/humorist Irvin Cobb.)
While Buff’s film career didn’t pan out, she did tour with a company putting on Noël Coward’s play Private Lives in the late ’40s. During a stop in Chicago, she was interviewed for a radio show by a young reporter named Mike Wallace — most famous today for his work as a 60 Minutes correspondent from 1968 to 2006.
She and Mike got married in 1949 and began co-hosting a Chicago radio show, which led to two New York City TV shows (both live):
Mike and Buff (1951-1953), originally entitled Two Sleepy People, one of television’s first talk shows. “[T]he couple would engage in heated debate over a different topic each day, then try to settle their differences after interviewing experts.” One of Mike’s catchphrases on the show was: “Smarten up, Buff!” The show was sponsored by Pepsi and guests included Harry Belafonte and Mickey Spillane.
All Around the Town (1951-1952), an interview show typically broadcast from different parts of New York City.
A year after Mike and Buff was cancelled, the real Mike and Buff were also cancelled — they divorced in 1954. Buff appeared regularly on just one more TV show after that: the ’50s game show Masquerade Party, from 1953 to 1955. Usage of the (female) name Buff was highest during these years.
Do you like the name Buff for a baby girl? Do you like it more or less than Buffy and Buffie (both of which also debuted during the first half of the ’50s)?
Gladstone, B. James. The Man Who Seduced Hollywood: The Life and Loves of Greg Bautzer. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013.