Canadian writer Mazo de la Roche found fame in her late 40s when her third novel, Jalna, won first prize (and $10,000) in the first “Atlantic Novel Contest” in 1927. The book was serialized in Atlantic Monthly, then released as a standalone volume.
The book’s main characters were members of the prosperous Whiteoak family. They lived at an estate in southern Ontario called Jalna. The estate had been built by family patriarch Capt. Philip Whiteoak, a retired officer of the British Army in India. He’d named it “Jalna” after the garrison town in India where he’d met his Irish wife, Adeline.
The book was a top-10 bestseller in the U.S. in both 1927 and 1928. It was such a big commercial success that the author kept writing novels about the Whiteoaks. She ended up with a total of 16 books, now known as the “Whiteoak Chronicles,” which cover four generations (1850s-1950s) of the fictional family.
Many of de la Roche’s character names — which included Finch, Pheasant, and Wakefield/”Wake” — came directly from from gravestones in Ontario’s Newmarket cemetery.
Given the popularity of the book, and the distinctiveness of the character names, it’s not too surprising that Jalna had an influence on U.S. baby name data in the ’20s and ’30s…
Character Alayne Archer was introduced in Jalna when Eden Whiteoak, an aspiring poet, traveled to New York City to meet with a publisher. Alayne was the publisher’s assistant, and she and Eden became romantically involved.
The debut of the baby name Alayne in 1929 was due to the much-anticipated follow-up book, Whiteoaks of Jalna — specifically, to the book reviews that ran in newspapers throughout the U.S. during the second half of 1929. Many of them mentioned Alayne.
1937: 19 baby girls named Alayne
1936: 23 baby girls named Alayne
1935: 16 baby girls named Alayne
1934: 9 baby girls named Alayne
1933: 5 baby girls named Alayne
1932: 5 baby girls named Alayne
1931: 9 baby girls named Alayne
1930: 7 baby girls named Alayne
1929: 11 baby girls named Alayne [debut]
Notice how usage rose during the mid-1930s. This was due to a related reason: the movie Jalna (1935), which was based on the first book and featured actress Kay Johnson as Alayne. (By 1935, five of the 16 books were out.)
Jalna & Renny
The year after the movie came out, two more Jalna-inspired names emerged in the data. One was Jalna itself, which didn’t stick around long:
1937: 9 baby girls named Jalna
1936: 6 baby girls named Jalna [debut]
(You could compare to Jalna to Tara, the plantation in Gone with the Wind.)
The other was Renny, from Eden’s half-brother Renny Whiteoak, who became Alayne’s love interest after Alayne and Eden grew apart.
1941: 8 baby boys named Renny
1939: 5 baby boys named Renny
1937: 8 baby boys named Renny
1936: 9 baby boys named Renny [debut]
Another factor that could have given Renny a boost that year was the fifth book in the series, Young Renny, which focused on that character specifically.
…So how did Mazo de la Roche come by her own unique name?
She was born “Mazo Louise Roche” in Ontario in 1879. She added the “de la” not (necessarily) to sound noble, but to reflect the historical spelling of the family name. And here’s what she said in her autobiography about her first name:
When my father saw me he said to my mother, “Let me name this one and you may name all the others.” And so he named me and there were never any others. Mazo had been the name of a girl to whom he once had been attached.
Nalu was a character played by actress Ramsay Ames in the film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944).
Nan Christy was an actress who appeared in films in the 1910s. She was born in 1894. Nan was also a character name in multiple films, including Nan’s Victory (short, 1914) and Nan of the North (1922).
Nazama was a character played by actress Binnie Barnes in the film The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938).
Alla Nazimova, often credited simply as Nazimova, was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1940s. She was born in Russia (now Ukraine) in 1879. Her birth name was Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon. Alla was also a character played by actress Sally Crute in the film The Cossack Whip (1916).
Nea was a character played by actress Dona Drake in the film Aloma of the South Seas (1941).
Neleta was a character played by actress Steffi Duna in the film Anthony Adverse (1936).
Nelga Petrona was a character played by actress Julia Swayne Gordon in the short film The Tigress (1915).
Nell Craig was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1940s. She was born in New Jersey in 1891. Nell Shipman was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1920s. She was born in Canada in 1892. Her birth name was Helen Foster-Barham. Nell was also a character name in multiple films, including The Reward of Thrift (short, 1914) and Nell Gwyn (1926).
Nennah was a character played by actress Ynez Seabury in the film The Calgary Stampede (1925).
Neola May was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1930s. She was born in California in 1891. Neola was also a character played by actress Betty Schade in the short film Olana of the South Seas (1914).
Netta Westcott was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1940s. She was born in England in 1893. Netta was also a character played by actress Linda Darnell in the film Hangover Square (1945).
Nirvena was a character played by actress Stephanie Bachelor in the film Lady of Burlesque (1943).
Nista was a character played by actress Caroline Frances Cooke in the film The Devil Bear (1929).
Nita Naldi was an actress who appeared in films in the 1920s. She was born in New York in 1894. Her birth name was Mary Nonna Dooley. Nita was also a character name in multiple films, including Jane Goes A’ Wooing (1919) and Two Gun Sheriff (1941).
The name “George Barr McCutcheon” probably doesn’t mean anything to you. But the name has become pretty familiar to me over the years, because George Barr McCutcheon — who wrote dozens of novels in the early 1900s — put several brand new baby names on the map in the early 20th century.
The Indiana-born writer lived from 1866 to 1928, and many of his books became bestsellers. Today, his best-remembered story is Brewster’s Millions, which has been adapted into a movie several times. The most memorable adaptation was the 1985 version starring comedians Richard Pryor (as protagonist Montgomery Brewster) and John Candy.
So which baby names did McCutcheon introduce/influence?
McCutcheon’s novel Nedra (1905) was the 5th best-selling book of 1905. Though there’s a lady on the front cover, “Nedra” isn’t a female character, but the name of an island on which several of the characters are shipwrecked.
SSDI data confirms that the name Nedra saw noticeably higher usage after the book was released.
One of these baby Nedras grew up to become actress Nedra Volz (b. 1908).
Yetive, Truxton, Gerane, Beverly
McCutcheon wrote six novels about the fictional Eastern European country of Graustark:
Graustark (1901) – the 9th best-selling book of 1901
Beverly of Graustark (1904) – the 6th best-selling book of 1904
Truxton King (1909) – the 6th best-selling book of 1909
The Prince of Graustark (1914) – the 10th best-selling book of 1914
East of the Setting Sun (1924)
The Inn of the Hawk and Raven (1927)
Several of these books were later made into movies and plays. The three Graustarkian names I’ve noticed on the charts are:
Yetive (debuted in 1911), inspired by Princess Yetive, a character in the first two books.
Truxton (deb. 1912), inspired by Truxton King, a character in the 3rd book.
Gerane (deb. 1928), inspired by Gerane Davos, a character in the final book. (The variant spelling “Geraine” was a one-hit wonder the same year.)
Plus there’s Beverly, which was used for a female character in Beverly of Graustark. The novel, along with a 1926 film adaptation, helped pull the once-gender-neutral name onto the girls’ side definitively. (Ironically, the actress who played Princess Yetive in a 1915 film adaptation of Graustark used the stage name Beverly Bayne.)
Here are some of Graustarkian names that did not make the charts: Ganlook, Grenfall, Dantan, Dannox, Marlanx, Bevra (the daughter of Beverly), Hedrik, and Pendennis.
McCutcheon’s novel West Wind Drift (1920) is like his earlier book Nedra in that both stories involve a shipwreck and an island. In Nedra, “Nedra” is the name of the island; in West Wind Drift, “Doraine” is the name of the ship.
The year West Wind Drift came out, the name Doraine debuted in the baby name data.
1923: 5 baby girls named Doraine
1921: 6 baby girls named Doraine
1920: 11 baby girls named Doraine [debut]
It was tied for 2nd-highest debut name that year. (#1 was Dardanella.)
Coincidentally, the shipwrecked characters in West Wind Drift have a debate at one point about using “Doraine” as baby name. They argue over whether or not they should give the name to an orphaned baby girl who had been born aboard the ship. Here’s the opinion of character Michael Malone: “We can’t do better than to name her after her birthplace. That’s her name. Doraine Cruise. It sounds Irish. Got music in it.”
Have you ever a George Barr McCutcheon book? If so, do you remember any unusual character names? (If not, and you’d like to check him out, here are dozens of George Barr McCutcheon novels archived at Project Gutenberg.)
Though vast majority of the baby names on the Social Security Administration’s yearly baby name lists are repeats, every list does contain a handful of brand-new names.
Below are the highest-charting debut names for every single year on record, after the first.
Why bother with an analysis like this? Because debut names often have cool stories behind them, and high-hitting debuts are especially likely to have intriguing pop culture explanations. So this is more than a list of names — it’s also a list of stories.
Here’s the format: “Girl name(s), number of baby girls; Boy name(s), number of baby boys.” Keep in mind that the raw numbers aren’t too trustworthy for about the first six decades, though. (More on that in a minute.)
I’ve already written about some of the names above, and I plan to write about all the others as well…eventually. In the meanwhile, if you want to beat me to it and leave a comment about why Maverick hit in 1957, or why Moesha hit in 1996, feel free!
If you like the idea of anagrams but want to avoid sound-alike sets, I recommend anagrams with different numbers of syllables. Pairs like “Etta and Tate” and “Clay and Lacy” are a far more subtle than pairs like “Enzo and Zeno” and “Mary and Myra.”