The Launch of Lara

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)
196818,743 baby girls (11th)1,295 baby girls (227th)
196715,817 baby girls (15th)945 baby girls (277th)
196615,549 baby girls (19th)236 baby girls (618th)
196516,213 baby girls (18th)65 baby girls (1,376th)
196418,974 baby girls (14th)57 baby girls (1,512th)

So…what caused Lara to suddenly skyrocket (and thereby steal some of Laura’s thunder)?

Doctor Zhivago movie poster

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 name Zhivago. (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!

Which name do you prefer, Lara or Laura?

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Sources: Doctor Zhivago (film) – Wikipedia, Doctor Zhivago – Orthodox England, Lara’s Theme – Wikipedia, Top 10 Highest-Grossing Films of All Time in the US, Ray Conniff – Billboard, Roger Williams – Billboard, Ray Conniff – Grammy.com, Laura – Behind the Name, Lara – Behind the Name

P.S. A woman named Lara after the Zhivago character was mentioned in Name Quotes 78.

The Revitalization of Laura

Laura movie poster, 1940s

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

Sources: Laura (1944) – TCM.com, Laura (1945) – Jazz Standards, Laura (1945 song) – Wikipedia, Laura movie review – Roger Ebert, Tell Laura I Love Her – Songfacts.com

The Baby Name Shelleen

baby name, 1960s, shelleen, movie
Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen, 1965

Here’s an interesting one. Most baby names that debut on the girls’ side of the list are put there by a female (either real or fictitious). But Shelleen, just like Kookie and Korla, seems to have popped up in 1965 thanks to a male.

  • 1968: unlisted
  • 1967: unlisted
  • 1966: 6 baby girls named Shelleen
  • 1965: 7 baby girls named Shelleen [debut]
  • 1964: unlisted
  • 1963: unlisted

The name can be linked to Kid Shelleen, the bumbling gunfighter played by Lee Marvin in the 1965 comedy Western Cat Ballou.

In fact, Lee Marvin had two roles in the film: Kid Shelleen, and Kid’s brother Tim Strawn, a much more competent gunfighter. For the dual role, Marvin won both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Actor in early 1966.

Males don’t typically give rise to new female names, but the timing and trends were just right for Shelleen in the ’60s. The same decade, similar names like Shelly, Michelle, and Sheila all saw peak usage.

What are your thoughts on the baby name Shelleen? Do you like it more or less than, say, Shelly?

Source: Cat Ballou – Wikipedia

Downtown Baby Name: Petula

petula clark, downtown, 1960s, music, song

Here’s an easy one. The baby name Petula appeared on the U.S. charts in the mid-’60s:

  • 1969: 16 baby girls named Petula
  • 1967: 39 baby girls named Petula [peak usage]
  • 1967: 23 baby girls named Petula
  • 1966: 20 baby girls named Petula
  • 1965: 19 baby girls named Petula [debut]
  • 1964: unlisted

This is the year the catchy song “Downtown” was a hit for English singer Petula Clark.

Petula was born in 1932, singing on radio by 1942, and putting out singles by the mid-’50s. She’d achieved fame in Europe, but when “Downtown” was released in late 1964, it brought her international fame.

“Downtown” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 1965. Several months later it won the Grammy for Best Rock & Roll Recording, beating contenders like “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison and “A Hard Day’s Night” by The Beatles. (A Billboard writer admitted that “Downtown” winning in the Rock & Roll category “puzzled many.”)

Petula’s birth name was Sally. The nickname “Petula” was coined by her father. Here’s what she said about her name(s) during a recent interview:

True or false: your dad named you after two of his former girlfriends, Pet and Ulla?

I have no idea if it’s true or false. This is a story that’s come up, and I don’t think it came from me – it’s just there. It could be. I’ve never heard of anyone called Pet or Ulla.

I’ve never heard of anyone else called Petula either, though.

No, but there are some Petulas. There’s actually a Petula Clark in the States. I don’t much like it actually. It sounds like a sort of stagey type name and I prefer Sally, which is the name on my birth certificate. I’ve always been called Petula.

What are your thoughts on the name Petula?

Sources: