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:
Peaches Jackson was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1930s. She was born in New York in 1913. Her birth name was Charlotte Jackson. Peaches was also a character played by actress May West in the film Every Day’s a Holiday (1937).
Peavey was a character played by actress Olive Borden in the film Leave It to Me (1933).
Peg Entwistle was an actress who appeared in one film in 1932 (and, the same year, committed suicide by jumping off the H of the Hollywoodland sign). She was born in Wales in 1908. Her birth name was Millicent Lilian Entwistle. Peg was also a character played by actress Anna Neagle in the film Peg of Old Drury (1935).
Peggy Pearce (born a Velma) was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1920s. She was born in California in 1894. Peggy Cartwright was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1930s. She was born in Canada in 1912. Peggy Moran (Mary) was an actress who appeared in films from the 1930s to the 1940s. She was born in Iowa in 1918. Peggy Ryan (Margaret) was an actress who appeared in films from the 1930s to the 1940s. She was born in California in 1924. Finally, Peggy was also a character name in multiple films including Peggy Lynn, Burglar (short 1915) and Confessions of a Co-Ed (1931).
Pert Pert Kelton was an actress who appeared in films from the 1920s to the 1960s. She was born in Montana in 1907. Pert was also a character name in multiple films, including Danger! Women at Work (1943) and Take It Big (1944).
Pervaneh was a character played by actress Greta Nissen in the film The Lady of the Harem (1926).
Petal Schultze was a character played by actress Amy Veness in the film Red Wagon (1933).
Phyllis Gordon was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1940s. She was born in Virginia in 1889. Phyllis Haver was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1930s. She was born in Kansas in 1899. Phyllis Thaxter was an actress who appeared in films from the 1940s to the 1970s. She was born in Maine in 1919. Finally, Phyllis was also a character name in multiple films, including Just Like a Woman (short, 1915) and Wagons Westward (1940).
Pinna Nesbit was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1920s. She was born in Canada in 1896.
Piquette was a character played by actress Shannon Day in the film Honor First (1922).
Plutina was a character played by actress Clara Kimball Young in the film The Heart of the Blue Ridge (1915).
Pola Negri was an actress who appeared in films from the 1910s to the 1960s. She was born in Poland in 1897. Her birth name was Barbara Apolonia Cha?upec. Pola was also a character played by actress Elizabeth Allan in the film Insult (1932).
Pompeia Plotina was a character played by actress Caroline Frances Cooke in the short film In the Days of Trajan (1913).
Pompilia was a character played by actress Marie Newton in the short film The Ring and the Book (1914).
Pomposia was a character played by actress Helen Ware in the film The Warrior’s Husband (1933).
Poppaea was a character name in multiple films, including Nero (1922) and The Sign of the Cross (1932).
Portland Fancy was a character played by actress Juliet Brenon in the film The Street of Forgotten Men (1925). (Plus there’s radio actress Portland Hoffa was most active during the ’30s and ’40s.)
The cute name Tisa first appeared in the U.S. Social Security Administration’s baby name dataset in the late ’40s:
1951: 6 baby girls named Tisa
1950: 5 baby girls named Tisa
1949: 11 baby girls named Tisa
1948: 15 baby girls named Tisa [debut]
What gave the name a boost that year?
The long-forgotten movie My Girl Tisa, which was set in New York City in the early 1900s. It followed a Hungarian immigrant named Tisa Kepes (played by Lilli Palmer, herself a German immigrant) whose aim was to earn enough money to bring her father to the United States.
Leonard Maltin called the film “sincere but uninspiring.”
So is Tisa a legitimate Hungarian name? Good question. It doesn’t seem to be a traditional female name, but there’s a well-known river that runs through Hungary called the Tisza. So perhaps this one is a modern creation along the lines of the Irish name Shannon (inspired by the River Shannon).
The name Tisa saw its highest usage (and even popped into the top 1,000 for a year) in 1970, when Theresa Magdalena “Tisa” Farrow — sister of newly famous Mia Farrow — decided to try acting and appeared in her first film, the low-budget counter-culture drama Homer (1970).
The ratio of Biblical names to non-Biblical names in the girl’s top 20 is about the same today as it was 100 years ago, though the ratio did change a bit mid-century.
(In contrast, there’s been a steady increase in the number of Biblical-origin names among the top boy names.)
Here’s the color-coded table — Biblical names are in the yellow cells, non-Biblical names are in the green cells, and several borderline names (which I counted as non-Biblical) are in the orange cells:
27%-73% is remarkably similar to both 25%-75% (smaller 2014 sample) and 30%-70% (1914 sample).
So here’s the question of the day: If you had to choose all of your children’s names from either one group or the other — Biblical names or non-Biblical names — which group would you stick to, and why?
I only recently noticed that Behind the Name, one of my favorite websites for baby name definitions, has a page called United States Popularity Analysis — a “computer-created analysis of the United States top 1000 names for the period 1880 to 2012.”
The page has some interesting top ten lists. Here are three of them: