Yesterday we looked at the baby name Laura, which saw a curious dip in usage from 1965 to 1967:
You know what was happening at the very same time? A drastic increase in the usage of the very similar name Lara, which suddenly jumped into the top 1,000 in 1966:
Here’s the data, side-by-side:
Laura usage (rank)
Lara usage (rank)
18,743 baby girls (11th)
1,295 baby girls (227th)
15,817 baby girls (15th)
945 baby girls (277th)
15,549 baby girls (19th)
236 baby girls (618th)
16,213 baby girls (18th)
65 baby girls (1,376th)
18,974 baby girls (14th)
57 baby girls (1,512th)
So…what caused Lara to suddenly skyrocket (and thereby steal some of Laura’s thunder)?
The film Doctor Zhivago, which was released at the very end of 1965 and which, accounting for inflation, currently ranks as the eighth highest-grossing film of all time in the U.S.
Doctor Zhivago, based on the 1957 Boris Pasternak novel of the same name, was a drama set in Russia during the early 1900s — primarily around the time of WWI and the Russian Revolution. The main character was married physician/poet Yuri Zhivago (played by Omar Sharif), who was having an affair with Larisa “Lara” Antipova (played by Julie Christie), the wife of a political activist.
But it was more than just the character — we can’t ignore the influence of the film’s leitmotif “Lara’s Theme.” After Doctor Zhivago came out, it was turned into a Grammy-winning pop song, “Somewhere, My Love,” that name-checked the character in the lyrics:
Lara, my own, think of me now and then Godspeed, my love, till you are mine again
Renditions of both versions of the song ended up peaking on Billboard‘s “Hot 100” list during the summer of 1966: Ray Conniff’s “Somewhere, My Love” at #9, and Roger Williams’ “Lara’s Theme” at #65.
Ironically, the names Lara and Laura are not related. Laura comes from the Latin name Laurus, meaning “laurel,” whereas the Russian name Lara is a short form of the Greek myth name Larisa, which may have been inspired by the ancient city of Larisa.
The movie also seems to have given a boost to the name Yuri (which had debuted a few years earlier thanks to cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin). And it must be connected somehow to the 1980 debut of the one-hit wonder nameZhivago. (Perhaps it was airing on TV around that time?) “Zhivago” isn’t a Russian surname, incidentally — it’s a Church Slavonic word meaning “the living.”
Getting back to Lara…the name’s popularity declined after the 1960’s, but, so far, it has never dropped out of the top 1,000. (The uptick in usage in 2001-2002 corresponds to the release of the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which starred Angelina Jolie.)
Now let’s try a poll: Which name do you prefer, Lara or Laura? Give me your reasons in the comments!
In the early 1880s, Laura was a top-20 name in the United States. From the mid-1880s onward, though, the name slowly sank in popularity. It even slipped out of the top 100 for a decade. But then, in 1945, Laura suddenly changed directions and started rising:
1947: 5,051 baby girls named Laura [rank: 74th]
1946: 4,478 baby girls named Laura [rank: 75th]
1945: 3,589 baby girls named Laura [rank: 77th]
1944: 2,243 baby girls named Laura [rank: 119th]
1943: 2,391 baby girls named Laura [rank: 117th]
1942: 2,409 baby girls named Laura [rank: 115th]
What happened in the mid-1940s to change the fate of Laura?
The one-two punch of the 1944 film noir Laura and — probably more importantly — the 1945 hit song “Laura,” which was created from the film’s theme song.
The movie starred Gene Tierney as the title character, Laura Hunt, who was believed to have been murdered for most of the film. The police detective looking into the murder, Mark McPherson (played by Dana Andrews), slowly became obsessed with Laura over the course of the investigation.
The film’s theme song, composed by David Raksin, lent “a haunted, nostalgic, regretful cast to everything it play[ed] under,” according to Roger Ebert. Here’s what it sounds like:
After the film was released, lyricist Johnny Mercer was asked to add words to the tune. His lyrics described Laura “through a series of elusive attributes: a face in the misty light, footsteps down the hall, a floating laugh, and as a woman on a passing train.”
Once there were words, various singers began recording and releasing their own versions of “Laura.” Five of these renditions reached top-10 status on the pop charts during 1945; the one sung by Woodrow “Woody” Herman (below) ended up selling more than a million copies.
The song has since become a jazz standard.
Fifteen years later, in the summer of 1960, the teenage tragedy song “Tell Laura I Love Her” by Ray Peterson reached #7 on Billboard‘s Hot 100. This second Laura-song gave the name an extra boost from 1959 to 1960.
And did you notice that intriguing dip in usage from 1965 to 1967? There’s a reason for that, too, but I’ll save the explanation for tomorrow’s post…
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:
On the original show, Theresa was portrayed by Burnett as a bit overbearing. But, she always brought extra love…and helped them name their daughter Mabel. When Jamie and Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser) couldn’t decide on a name for their baby, Theresa proclaimed that “Mothers Always Bring Extra Love,” an homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show where Rob and Laura explain Ritchie’s middle name. The Buchman’s decide to call their daughter Mabel.
The conversation between Rob Petrie (dad) and Ritchie Rosebud Petrie (son) referenced above, from the 1962 Dick Van Dyke episode “What’s in a Middle Name?” [vid]:
Rob: …and there’s no reason to look so sad, your middle name isn’t really Rosebud.
Ritchie: Yes it is, my birth certificate says it’s Rosebud.
Rob: Yes it does, but do you know why?
Ritchie: No, but I wish it was ‘Jim.’
Rob: So you see, Ritch, actually, your middle name is Robert, Oscar, Sam, Edward, Benjamin, Ulysses, David. And, the initials to all of your middle names spells…
(The seven names were suggestions from various family members. To see the scene and hear the full explanation, click the link to the video.)
From the 2018 children’s book Who Is Pele? by James Buckley, Jr.:
Edson Arantes do Nascimento was born on October 23, 1940, in the tiny village of Três Corações (say: TRACE kor-ah-SOYS), Brazil. Even in 1940, there were many parts of the world that did not have electricity. Most of southeastern Brazil was one of those areas. In honor of their village finally getting electricity, Edson’s parents named their first son after the American inventor Thomas Edison.
My father tells me that they were on their honeymoon at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I believe. They were looking at a da Vinci painting, and allegedly I started kicking furiously while my mother was pregnant. And my father took that as a sign, and I suppose DiCaprio wasn’t that far from da Vinci. And so, my dad, being the artist that he is, said, “That’s our boy’s name.”
Looking forward, there’s plenty more space for creativity with highly unique but still highly religious names. Of the 2,606 biblical names I track in my ongoing research, only 811 ever had a year with more than 4 baby boys or girls given that name. We haven’t yet seen kids named Abijam or Paltiel, nor have we seen name fads for Philetus or Berechiah. Even notably faithful biblical figures like Ehud, Elkanah, Habakkuk, Hilkiah, and Jehonadab have been passed over.
If you ever come across an interesting name-related quote (or article), please let me know!