We’re all familiar with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, thanks to the catchy Christmas song.
But the character was around for a full decade before the song came out. He originated in a 1939 children’s book by Robert L. May.
May, a copywriter at Montgomery Ward, wrote the book as part of the retailer’s annual holiday promotion. More than two million copies of Rudolph were handed out to shoppers nationwide that year.
One of May’s handwritten notes from that era reveals that, before he’d settled on the name “Rudolph” for the red-nosed reindeer, he’d considered the following alliterative R-names:
The two names he’d circled were Rudolph and Reginald — the top two contenders, no doubt. (Sources say he decided Reginald was “too British,” and Rollo “too happy.”)
Robert L. May’s songwriter brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, later turned Rudolph’s story into a song. Gene Autry recorded “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in mid-1949 and it became a massive hit that Christmas. (Autry followed it up with “Frosty the Snowman” in 1950.)
So now imagine you’ve gone back in time, oh, say, 78 years. Your copywriter friend Rob sends you a telegram asking for your assistance in naming a fictional reindeer character he’s writing about, for work. He includes a list of ten possibilities. Which name do you select?
Or, if you’re not keen on any of these, feel free to comment with a write-in candidate. Just be sure it starts with R!
“A giveaway that sold millions.” The Bookseller 24 Dec. 1960: 2376.
On September 11, 2001, members of the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda carried out four coordinated terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, most of whom died with the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City.
New York City mayor Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani was lauded for his leadership in the aftermath of the attacks. He made a number of appearances on TV* and radio. Oprah Winfrey dubbed him “America’s Mayor.”
On the last day of 2001, Time magazine declared Giuliani “Person of the Year.” (That day was also Giuliani’s last day as mayor, incidentally). Time said:
With the President out of sight for most of that day, Giuliani became the voice of America. Every time he spoke, millions of people felt a little better. His words were full of grief and iron, inspiring New York to inspire the nation. “Tomorrow New York is going to be here,” he said. “And we’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to be stronger than we were before…I want the people of New York to be an example to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, that terrorism can’t stop us.”
And in 2002, we see the baby name Giuliani appear for the very first time in the SSA’s baby name data:
2002: 6 baby boys named Giuliani [debut]
Two other baby names that debuted around this time, Independence in 2001 and Patriot in 2002, were also likely given a boost by the events of 9/11.
*Later in September, Rudy Giuliani was featured in the Saturday Night Live “9/11 Tribute” (video) that memorably ended with this short exchange between Lorne Michaels and Giuliani: “Can we be funny?” “Why start now?”
The ground-breaking ’80s sitcom focused on the Huxtables, a well-off African-American family living in New York City. It starred Bill Cosby as Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable.
The show ran from mid-1984 to mid-1992 and was the top-rated program in the nation for 5 consecutive seasons.
And it influenced a whole bunch of baby names, such as…
Vanessa & Tempestt
Vanessa, the second-youngest Huxtable child, was played by Tempestt Bledsoe. The baby name Vanessa saw its highest-ever levels of usage during the years the show was on:
1989: 6,955 baby girls named Vanessa (ranked 50th)
1988: 7,515 baby girls named Vanessa (ranked 41st)
1987: 7,345 baby girls named Vanessa (ranked 43rd)
1986: 7,367 baby girls named Vanessa (ranked 43rd)
1985: 7,562 baby girls named Vanessa (ranked 42nd)
1984: 7,153 baby girls named Vanessa (ranked 45th)
1983: 6,383 baby girls named Vanessa (ranked 49th)
And the baby name Tempestt debuted on the charts the year after the show premiered:
1990: 70 baby girls named Tempestt
1989: 98 baby girls named Tempestt
1988: 72 baby girls named Tempestt
1987: 87 baby girls named Tempestt
1986: 78 baby girls named Tempestt
1985: 36 baby girls named Tempestt [debut]
The name Tempest also got a boost during the last half of the ’80s.
Rudy & Keshia
Rudith “Rudy” Huxtable, the baby of the family, was played by Keshia Knight Pulliam. The baby name Keshia entered the top 1,000 for the very first time the year after the show premiered:
1990: 385 baby girls named Keshia (ranked 594th)
1989: 496 baby girls named Keshia (ranked 479th)
1988: 398 baby girls named Keshia (ranked 547th)
1987: 483 baby girls named Keshia (ranked 457th)
1986: 511 baby girls named Keshia (ranked 426th)
1985: 321 baby girls named Keshia (ranked 596th)
1984: 96 baby girls named Keshia
1983: 64 baby girls named Keshia
The name Rudy also rose in usage, and the variant spelling Rudi debuted on the charts in 1985.
Huxtable mother Clair was played by actress Phylicia Rashād. The baby name Phylicia entered the top 1,000 for the first time two years after the show premiered:
1990: 257 baby girls named Phylicia (ranked 787th)
1989: 265 baby girls named Phylicia (ranked 744th)
1988: 286 baby girls named Phylicia (ranked 679th)
1987: 290 baby girls named Phylicia (ranked 649th)
1986: 213 baby girls named Phylicia (ranked 789th)
1985: 122 baby girls named Phylicia
1984: 13 baby girls named Phylicia
1983: 7 baby girls named Phylicia
Theo & Malcolm-Jamal
Theo, the middle Huxtable child (and the only male in the family besides Cliff) was played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner. The baby name Theo almost tripled in usage the year after the show premiered:
1990: 66 baby boys named Theo
1989: 75 baby boys named Theo
1988: 77 baby boys named Theo
1987: 75 baby boys named Theo
1986: 85 baby boys named Theo
1985: 76 baby boys named Theo
1984: 23 baby boys named Theo
1983: 26 baby boys named Theo
Usage of the baby name Malcolm also began to rise in the mid-’80s, and the baby name Malcolm-Jamal (rendered Malcolmjamal by the SSA, which leaves off hyphens) debuted on the baby name charts two years after the show premiered:
1988: 5 baby boys named Malcolm-Jamal
1986: 5 baby boys named Malcolm-Jamal [debut]
(Where did actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner get his name, btw? He was named after civil rights activist Malcolm X and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal.)
So now here’s the question: Does The Cosby Show beat Family Ties in terms of impact on the baby name charts? Cosby clearly affected a greater number of names, but is that enough to offset the massive rises of both Mallory and Alex?