Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first person to cross the Northwest Passage (1905), to reach the South Pole (1911), and to reach both poles (1926).
His name, Roald, can be traced back to an Old Norse name made up of the words hróðr, meaning “fame,” and valdr, meaning “ruler.” It first appeared on the U.S. baby name charts in 1912:
1915: 6 baby boys named Roald
1914: 7 baby boys named Roald
1913: 5 baby boys named Roald
1912: 10 baby boys named Roald [debut]
Why 1912? Because, even though Amundsen reached the South Pole in December of 1911, the rest of the world wasn’t aware of his accomplishment until after he’d left Antarctica and arrived in Tasmania in March of 1912.
The SSDI shows a similar rise in the number of Roalds born in 1912:
1915: 4 people named Roald
1914: 5 people named Roald
1913: 6 people named Roald
1912: 9 people named Roald
1911: 3 people named Roald
Many of the U.S. babies named Roald during the 1910s were born to parents who had emigrated from Norway.* Amusingly, four or five of these baby Roalds were born into families with the surname Amundson or Amundsen.
Peak usage happened in 1928, the year Roald Amundsen went missing and was presumed dead after a plane crash in the Arctic.**
Finally, though I don’t have any data to back it up, my hunch is that the name Roald also saw increased usage in other regions in the 1910s and 1920s, and perhaps later. Amundsen’s two most famous namesakes are writer Roald Dahl, born in Wales in 1916, and chemist Roald Hoffmann, born in Poland in 1937.
*Similar to the way Bertil became trendy among Swedish immigrants.
**Same thing happened to the name Knute the year Knute Rockne died, also in a plane crash.
Crown Prince Gustaf VI of Sweden welcomed a baby boy named Bertil in early 1912.
The same year Prince Bertil was born, the baby name Bertil appeared on the U.S. baby name charts:
1917: 21 baby boys named Bertil
1916: 28 baby boys named Bertil
1915: 24 baby boys named Bertil
1914: 31 baby boys named Bertil
1913: 17 baby boys named Bertil
1912: 16 baby boys named Bertil [debut]
Bertil was the second-highest debut that year, after Woodroe (inspired by Woodrow Wilson, who was elected president in November).
But the early SSA numbers tend to be low, so here’s some SSDI data for a different perspective. (I’m only counting people with the first name Bertil.)
1917: 24 Bertils born (SSDI)
1916: 33 Bertils
1915: 39 Bertils
1914: 47 Bertils
1913: 33 Bertils
1912: 36 Bertils
1911: 16 Bertils
Just about all of the surnames I saw for Bertils in the SSDI were Swedish. Even more interesting, the SSA data indicates that many of these Bertils were born in Minnesota, Illinois and Massachusetts — states with large Swedish communities:
By 1910 the position of the Midwest as a place of residence for the Swedish immigrants and their children was still strong, but had weakened. Fifty-four percent of the Swedish immigrants and their children now lived in these states, with Minnesota and Illinois dominating. Fifteen percent lived in the East, where the immigrants were drawn to industrial areas in New England. New York City and Worcester, Massachusetts, were two leading destinations.
I think it’s safe to conclude that this usage of Bertil was occurring among Swedish immigrants (and their descendants) exclusively.
So what’s the etymology of Bertil? The Handbook of Scandinavian Names says Bertil and Bertel (which debuted the very next year) are “forms of the first element in German names like Berthold, from bert ‘bright, shining.’ Behind the Name simply says Bertil is a form of Berthold, meaning “bright ruler.”
Surprisingly, Bertil isn’t the first U.S. baby name debut we can link to Swedish royalty. Ebba, which debuted in 1888, was inspired by Princess Ebba Bernadotte — baby Bertil’s great aunt.
A while back we talked about a bunch of actress-inspired name debuts from the 1910s (Francelia, Ormi, Seena, Allyn). So far, though, we haven’t talked much about movie-inspired baby name debuts from the decade — even though there are over a dozen of them (including Zudora).
The earliest one I’ve seen so far? Undine.
The name Undine comes directly from the word undine, which is a type of water nymph found in European folklore. The mythological creature was originally dubbed undina by Swiss-German physician Paracelsus during the 16th century. He’d based the name on the Latin word unda, meaning “wave.”
Undines later began making appearances in the arts — first in the German novella Undine, eine Erzählung (1811) by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, then in operas and plays, then in paintings and sculptures.
Eventually, Undine started seeing occasional usage as a female name. But the baby name Undine didn’t appear on the SSA’s baby name list until 1912 — the same year the SSDI shows a spike in the number of people with the first name Undine.
9 Undines [debut]
What was the cause?
Well, we have two films to choose from: Undine and Neptune’s Daughter.
Both were short, silent, black-and-white films based on the German novella and released in September of 1912.
In Undine, put out by Thanhouser, Undine was played by actress Florence La Badie (whose untimely death in late 1917 may have caused the 1918 spike in the usage of Florence).
In Neptune’s Daughter, put out by Essanay, Undine was played by actress Martha Russell.
My guess is that Undine had a greater influence on baby names than Neptune’s Daughter did, simply because it features the name in the title.
(The Edith Wharton novel The Custom of the Country, which was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine during the first half of 1913, features a protagonist named Undine Spragg. I wonder if Wharton wasn’t influenced by these movies as well…?)
What do you think of the name Undine? Do you like this version of the name, or do you prefer one of the other forms (like Ondine or Undina)?
That headline makes me squirm a little, but it’s true: I’ve found a handful of baby names on the SSA’s list inspired by racists.
Racist politicians, to be specific.
Decades ago, these demagogues used race‑baiting as a way to win elections in the former Confederate states — the same states that have only recently started to pull down their Confederate flags in the wake of last month’s horrific Charleston church shooting.
In fact, the ongoing Confederate flag controversy is what reminded me to finally post about these names, as the names (just like the flag) can be seen as symbols of either “racism” or “southern pride” depending on your point of view.
(Please note that the SSA data below refers only to male usage, and that I’ve only included state data that refers to the state in question.)
White supremacist Coleman “Coley” Blease was a politician from South Carolina:
U.S. Senator from South Carolina, 1925-1931
South Carolina Governor, 1911-1915
South Carolina Senator, 1907-1909
South Carolina Representative, 1890-1894, 1899-1901
Here’s part of an article about a speech Blease delivered regarding the lynching of Willis Jackson in 1911:
“[Blease] stated that rather than use the office of governor in ordering out troops to defend a negro brute and require those troops to fire on white citizens, he would resign from the office to which he had been elected, and would have caught the train to Honea Path and led the mob.”
Of all the men listed here, Blease (rhymes with “please”) had the biggest impact on baby names, including not one but two SSA debuts. I’d call this impressive if it weren’t so disturbing.
The baby names Colie and Blease both debuted in 1911. Colie was the top debut on the national list that year, in fact. The names Coley, Cole, and Coleman also started seeing more usage in South Carolina around that time.
13 (9 in SC)
19 (5 in SC)
19 (6 in SC)
110 (8 in SC)
9 (8 in SC)
22 (13 in SC)
18 (7 in SC)
25 (10 in SC)
120 (10 in SC)
15 (14 in SC)
21 (12 in SC)
21 (7 in SC)
26 (13 in SC)
116 (8 in SC)
17 (15 in SC)
18 (15 in SC)
23 (10 in SC)
23 (12 in SC)
102 (12 in SC)
15 (14 in SC)
16 (8 in SC)
15 (6 in SC)
19 (9 in SC)
75 (5 in SC)
20 (19 in SC)
23 (21 in SC)
19 (9 in SC)
23 (11 in SC)
69 (15 in SC)
12 (all 12 in SC)
16** (8 in SC)
9 (7 in SC)
8** (all 8 in SC)
40 (6 in SC)
**Debut on national list.
And, just to be thorough, here’s the SSDI data for these five names over the same time period. (As usual I’m only counting first names here, not middles.)
If you do want to count middle names, though, Blease was much more common than the above number suggest, as many people got first-middle combos such as…
Theodore G. Bilbo was a politician from Mississippi:
U.S. Senator from Mississippi, 1935-1947
Mississippi Governor, 1916-1920, 1928-1932
Mississippi Lt. Governor, 1912-1916
Mississippi State Senator, 1908-1912
Here’s a quote from Bilbo’s book Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, published in 1947:
“The South stands for blood, for the preservation of the blood of the white race. To preserve her blood, the white South must absolutely deny social equality to the Negro regardless of what his individual accomplishments might be. This is the premise — openly and frankly stated — upon which Southern policy is based.”
The baby name Bilbo appeared on the SSA’s list during the 1910s and 1920s, and almost all of these Bilbos were born in the state of Mississippi:
1916: 22 baby boys named Bilbo, 22 (100%) born in Mississippi
1915: 17 baby boys named Bilbo, 17 (100%) born in Mississippi
1914: 12 baby boys named Bilbo, 12 (100%) born in Mississippi
1913: 8 baby boys named Bilbo, 8 (100%) born in Mississippi
1912: 8 baby boys named Bilbo, 7 (88%) born in Mississippi
1911: 9 baby boys named Bilbo, all 9 (100%) born in Mississippi
1910: 7 baby boys named Bilbo [debut], 6 (86%) born in Mississippi [MS debut]
According to the SSA data, peak usage was in 1916. According to the SSDI data, though, it was in 1911, with 45 babies getting the first name Bilbo that year.
James K. Vardaman, a.k.a. the “Great White Chief,” was another politician from Mississippi:
U.S. Senator from Mississippi, 1913-1919
Mississippi Governor, 1904-1908
Mississippi Representative, 1890-1896
Here’s a quote from Vardaman (there were many to choose from, but this was the worst):
“If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”
The rare baby name Vardaman is a 2-hit wonder that debuted in 1911:
1911: 8 baby boys named Vardaman [debut], 6 (75%) born in Mississippi [MS debut]
According to the SSA data, peak usage was in 1911. But according to the SSDI data there were two peaks: one in 1911 (16 babies with the first name Vardaman) and and earlier one in 1903 (20 babies with the first name Vardaman, including one with the full name Vardaman Vandevender).
J. Thomas “Cotton Tom” Heflin was a politician from Alabama:
U.S. Senator from Alabama, 1920-1931
U.S. Representative from Alabama, 1904-1920
Alabama Secretary of State, 1903-1904
Here’s a vignette about Heflin:
In 1908, while a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he had shot and seriously wounded a black man who confronted him on a Washington streetcar. Although indicted, Heflin succeeded in having the charges dismissed. In subsequent home-state campaigns, he cited that shooting as one of his major career accomplishments.
The baby name Heflin was another 2-hit wonder. It debuted 1920:
1920: 5 baby boys named Heflin [debut], 5 (100%) born in Alabama [AL debut]
According to [Hoke] Smith, it would be “folly for us to neglect any means within our reach to remove the present danger of Negro domination.” He also approved the use of “any means” to purge elected African American officeholders.
Usage of the baby name Hoke began to peter out mid-century, but during the first half of the century (when it was making the U.S. national list regularly) most of the baby boys named Hoke were born in Georgia specifically:
1916: 15 baby boys named Hoke, 9 (60%) born in Georgia
1915: 15 baby boys named Hoke, 10 (67%) born in Georgia
1914: 18 baby boys named Hoke, 11 (61%) born in Georgia
1913: 12 baby boys named Hoke, 7 (58%) born in Georgia
1912: 9 baby boys named Hoke, 8 (89%) born in Georgia
1911: 9 baby boys named Hoke, 8 (89%) born in Georgia
1910: 19 baby boys named Hoke, 16 (84%) born in Georgia [GA debut]
1909: 10 baby boys named Hoke, unlisted in Georgia
Some of these namesakes, like Hoke Smith Rawlins (b. 1931 in Georgia), got Smith as a middle name.
Murphy J. Foster was a politician from Louisiana:
U.S. Senator from Louisiana, 1901-1913
Louisiana Governor, 1892-1900
Louisiana State Senator, 1880-1892
Here’s Foster (as governor) talking about the disfranchisement of blacks under the newly approved Louisiana Constitution:
“The white supremacy for which we have so long struggled at the cost of so much precious blood and treasure is now crystallized into the Constitution as a fundamental part and parcel of that organic instrument […] There need be no longer any fear as to the honesty and purity of our future elections.”
For at least half of the 20th century (from the 1910s to the 1960s) a significant proportion of the U.S. baby boys named Murphy were born in Louisiana specifically:
1916: 69 baby boys named Murphy, 24 (35%) born in Louisiana
1915: 61 baby boys named Murphy, 36 (59%) born in Louisiana
1914: 51 baby boys named Murphy, 18 (35%) born in Louisiana
1913: 28 baby boys named Murphy, 8 (29%) born in Louisiana
1912: 41 baby boys named Murphy, 15 (37%) born in Louisiana
1911: 18 baby boys named Murphy, 9 (50%) born in Louisiana
1910: 14 baby boys named Murphy, 6 (43%) born in Louisiana [LA debut]
1909: 15 baby boys named Murphy, unlisted in Louisiana
…And the racist-inspired baby names don’t end there! Many other racist politicians from the South, even if they didn’t appreciably affect the baby name charts, still had an influence on baby names. Here are two examples:
Still other politicians, like 2-time Alabama Governor Bibb Graves, are borderline cases. Graves was a progressive politician, but he was initially elected with the help of the Klu Klux Klan, which he was a member of at the time (he later quit).
Finally, here’s the thing I’m most curious about: How did all of the namesakes accounted for above come to feel about their names in adulthood? Were they proud? Ashamed? A mix of both…?
The curious name Leneve debuted on the SSA’s baby name list 105 years ago…then disappeared.
1910: 7 baby girls named Leneve
A similar spike can be seen in the SSDI data:
1911: 6 people named Leneve
1910: 16 people named Leneve
Where did the name Leneve come from all of a sudden in 1910?
We’ll get to that in a second. First, let’s start with the murder.
On July 13, 1910, the remains of a body thought to belong to music hall singer Belle Elmore (legal name Cora Crippen) were found in the basement of her home in London. Belle had been missing since February.
The main suspect was her husband, Hawley Crippen, a homeopathic doctor who had fled to Belgium several days earlier with his young lover, Ethel Le Neve.
A warrant for the arrest of Crippen and Le Neve was issued on July 16.
The pair — disguised as father and son, and using the surname Robinson — boarded a Canada-bound steamship in Antwerp on July 20.
The captain of the ship was suspicious of the pair, so he telegraphed the boat’s owners, who in turn telegraphed Scotland Yard.
A London police officer boarded an even faster steamship headed for Canada on July 23.
Fascinatingly, Crippen and Le Neve were not only unaware that they were being trailed by the London police on another boat, but they also didn’t know that newspapers around the world had picked up their story and that millions of people were reading about the dramatic transatlantic race, day by day, as it occurred.
The faster ship reached Quebec first, and the officer was able to intercept and arrest the fugitives on July 31. (This makes Crippen and Le Neve the first criminals to be apprehended with the assistance of wireless communication.)
The next month, the pair sailed back to England. They were tried separately.
Crippen was found guilty. He was executed by hanging on November 23.
Ethel Le Neve was acquitted. She promptly left for New York.
To this day, no one knows exactly whose remains were in that basement in London, how they got there, and who was to blame for it all.
But we do know that Ethel Le Neve (often written “Leneve” in U.S. newspapers) was a fixture in the news in mid-1910. This is no doubt what boosted the rare name Leneve onto the baby name charts for the first and only time. Leneve was the top one-hit wonder name of 1910, in fact.
Ethel was back in London by 1915. She eventually got married and had two children. She died in 1967, never having revealed to her children that she “had once been the world’s most famous runaway.” (They found this out in the 1980s, after being contacted by a crime historian.)
Ziegfeld Follies, which appeared on Broadway almost every year from 1907 until 1931, was an extravagant production that included music, dance and comedy.
The biggest draw, though, was the bevy of beautiful showgirls.
It became a popular sport to guess which one would break out and become the next big star, like onetime showgirls Barbara Stanwyck, Paulette Goddard, Gypsy Rose Lee, Josephine Baker, and of course, Marilyn Miller.
Several Follies girls went on to enjoy successful careers in entertainment, but only two — Allyn King and Avonne Taylor — inspired baby name debuts.
In fact, Allyn and Avonne are the 4th- and 5th-earliest actor-inspired baby name debuts that I know of (after Francelia, Ormi and Seena).
Allyn King was born in North Carolina in February of 1899. It looks as though she was named after her father, Allen. (Her sister, Phoebe, had been named after their mother.)
Allyn was a Follies girl from 1916 until 1920, and the name Allyn — which was already showing up regularly on the SSA’s list as a boy name — debuted as a girl name in 1918:
1918: 7 baby girls named Allyn [debut]
1921: 5 baby girls named Allyn
1923: 7 baby girls named Allyn
1924: 5 baby girls named Allyn
1925: 11 baby girls named Allyn
1926: 5 baby girls named Allyn
(I can’t include SSDI data for unisex names like this one because the SSDI doesn’t code for gender, making it difficult to figure out which people are male and which are female.)
Allyn King continued to appear in Broadway shows during the 1920s, and she was in one silent film in 1923.
But the pressure to achieve the skinny, boyish figure that was fashionable during the ’20s proved too much for her. Extreme dieting nearly killed her in 1927, and after spending almost two years recovering in a sanatorium, she was still so depressed in early 1930 that she jumped out of a 5th story window in New York City. She died two days later.
Avonne Taylor was born in Ohio, also in February of 1899, to parents Clifford and Diana. Her birth name was Evangeline, but she joined the Follies under the name Avonne. (I’m not sure how she came up with it.)
Avonne was a Follies girl from 1920 to 1922, and the name Avonne debuted on the SSA’s list in 1923:
11 Avonnes [debut]
(For the SSDI numbers, I only counted people who had Avonne as a first name, not as a middle.)
Avonne Taylor went on to appear in a couple of films — one in 1927, the other in 1931 — and then left the entertainment industry altogether, it seems. She died in 1992 at the age of 93.
First there was Francelia. Then there was Ormi. And today we have Seena — the third name (I know of) to debut on the U.S. baby name charts thanks to the influence of a silent film actress.
That actress was Seena Owen, and she’s a special case, as she’s the first actress on my list to become popular under a stage name.
Signe Auen was born in Washington state in 1894. Her parents were immigrants from Denmark, and she had older siblings named Lillie (who became a screenwriter) and Audun.
The Scandinavian name Signe can be traced back to the Old Norse name Signý, which is made up on the elements sigr, meaning “victory,” and ný, meaning “new.”
Signe Auen began appearing in films in late 1914.
In 1915, there was an uptick in the number of babies named Signe according to both the SSA and the SSDI.
(For the SSDI numbers — which were declining during the 1910s, after peaking in the 1890s and 1900s — I only counted people who had Signe as a first name, not as a middle.)
Sometime during the last half of 1915 Signe Auen changed her name to “Seena Owen” — the phonetic spelling of her Danish name.
And in 1917, the baby name Seena debuted on the SSA’s baby name list:
5 Seenas [debut]
Numbers from both the SSA and the SSDI show that usage of the name Seena, which has always been relatively low, was at its highest during the 1920s.
This matches up pretty well with Seena Owen’s film career, which lasted from the late 1910s until the early 1930s, when Owen retired from acting due to the advent of talkies.
Which name do you like more, Signe or Seena?
P.S. Did you know that Seena Owen was the first person to wear false eyelashes? Director David Llewelyn “D. W.” Griffith had a wig maker invent the first set of eyelash extensions for Owen to wear in his 1916 epic film Intolerance.