When I wrote about the name Tareva a couple of years ago, I said it was the only Star Search-inspired debut name I’d ever come across. Well, I’ve since discovered one more!
The name Symba was a 2-hit wonder that only appeared in the SSA data in 1991 and 1992:
1992: 5 baby girls named Symba
1991: 30 baby girls named Symba [debut]
The cause? Not Disney’s animated baby lion, which didn’t come along until a few years later, but Star Search spokesmodel competitor Symba Smith, who appeared on multiple episodes of the show during the 1991 season and ultimately won the 1991 championship (which included $100,000 in prize money).
Two years earlier, in 1989, Mississippi-born Symba had won the “Miss Teen All-American” pageant. (Four years before that, the pageant winner had been Halle Berry.)
But that’s not all. Here are two more names that saw a boost in usage thanks to Star Search:
The name Durell spiked in popularity in 1985 thanks to singer Durell Coleman, winner of the 1985 season.
1987: 50 baby boys named Durell
1986: 123 baby boys named Durell
1985: 208 baby boys named Durell
1984: 46 baby boys named Durell
The name Countess jumped back onto the charts in 1988 thanks to Countess Vaughn, who sang on the show as a 9-year-old.
1989: 6 baby girls named Countess
1988: 15 baby girls named Countess
Vaughn went on to join the cast of Moesha in 1996 as a teenager.
Two more names that may have been influenced by Star Search — it’s hard to tell — are Garcelle and Jordis. Garcelle Beauvais competed as a spokesmodel in 1986, and Jordis Unga competed as a vocalist in 2004. (Unga’s 2005 appearance on Rock Star: INXS was probably a bigger influence on overall usage.)
In October of 1990, two months after Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah testified in front of the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus. She said she’d seen Iraqi soldiers taking Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and leaving them to die.
Her testimony helped sway public opinion in favor of the Gulf War.
But in early 1992, her testimony was called into question. New York Times writer John MacArthur revealed that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States. Her appearance had been arranged by a U.S. public relations firm and sponsored by a Kuwaiti organization pushing for military intervention. Most importantly, the claims she made could not be corroborated:
Saddam Hussein committed plenty of atrocities, but not, apparently, this one. The teenager’s accusation, at first verified by Amnesty International, was later refuted by that group as well as by other independent human rights monitors.
And amid this controversy in 1992, we see the baby name Nayirah appear for the very first time in the U.S. baby name data:
1992: 13 baby girls named Nayirah [debut]
The name, which means “luminous” in Arabic, dropped out of the data the next year. It remained a one-hit wonder until reappearing just recently, in 2015.
Saddam Hussein served as the leader of Iraq from the mid-1970s until the early 2000s.
In August of 1990, he invaded Kuwait and set off the Persian Gulf War. (Years later, when asked why he invaded Kuwait, one of his answers was: “When I get something into my head I act. That’s just the way I am.”)
In early 1991, the a U.S.-led allied coalition attacked Iraq, mainly from the air (Operation Desert Storm). By late February, the Iraqis were finally driven out of Kuwait.
Saddam Hussein was in the U.S. news enough in the early 1990s that the name Saddam appeared in the U.S. baby name data for three years in a row:
1992: 5 baby boys named Saddam
1991: 10 baby boys named Saddam
1990: 15 baby boys named Saddam [debut]
6 born in California
The name Saddam means “one who confronts” in Arabic. In 2007, The Economist specified that the “ungainly” name was “a conjugate of the Arabic words for “shock” and “collision.””
Saddam Hussein’s full name at birth was Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti. “Hussein” was his father’s name, “Abd al-Majid” was his grandfather’s name, and “al-Tikriti” refers to the town of Tikrit, where he was born. He later abolished regional surnames, possibly to “obscure the number of members of his inner circle who were relatives from Takrit.”
Several TV programs about the unsolved murder of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey are set to air in the coming weeks and months, as December 25 of this year marks the 20th anniversary of JonBenét’s death.
The news of her murder brought attention to her unusual name (an invention inspired by the name of her father, John Bennett Ramsey) and in 1997 we see Jonbenet appear for the first time in the SSA’s baby name data:
1999: 6 baby girls named Jonbenet
1997: 14 baby girls named Jonbenet [debut]
The name was on the list again in 1999, but dropped off after that.
Do you think all the 20th anniversary attention will boost the name back onto the charts either this year or next?
The names Dodie, Dody, and Dodi are most familiar to us as nicknames for Dorothy (or Dolores).
But in 1997, Dodi pops onto the charts as a boy name for the first and only time:
1997: 5 baby boys named Dodi [debut]
Because 1997 was the year that Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed died in a high-speed car crash in Paris. The crash happened on August 31 — almost exactly a year after Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles was finalized.
Diana and Dodi had only been together since July, but their romance quickly became the top tabloid story of the summer. CNN said on August 11 that their relationship “[was] just a few weeks old, but Monday’s headlines on Britain’s royalty-obsessed tabloids practically had them married.”
Wealthy playboy Dodi, whose full name was Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Moneim Al-Fayed, was the son of an Egyptian billionaire. Before Diana, he had been linked to a string famous women including Brooke Shields, Tawny Kitaen, and Tina Sinatra.
Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) was the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. He served from 1967 until 1991.
Prior to that, he was known for having won 29 of the 32 cases he’d argued argued before the Supreme Court. Most were civil rights cases, including the famous Brown v. Board of Education case that ended legal segregation in public schools in 1954.
The year he died, the name Thurgood debuted on the U.S. baby name charts:
So how did Thurgood Marshall get his unusual first name?
It was passed down from his paternal grandfather, who apparently went by either of two names: Thorneygood and Thoroughgood.
The elder Thoroughgood/Thorneygood served in the U.S. Army, and he didn’t know which name to use when he enlisted, so he used both. And he ended up getting two sets of retirement checks because of it.
Thurgood Marshall told TIME: “I was named Thoroughgood after him but by the time I was in the second grade, I got tired of spelling all that and shortened it.”
His maternal grandfather also had a distinctive name: Isaiah Olive Branch Williams. Isaiah and his wife Mary had six children, all with fascinating names — several inspired by Isaiah’s travels abroad with the U.S. merchant marine.
Avonia Delicia – first name after Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon
Avon Nyanza – first name also after Stratford-upon-Avon
Denmedia Marketa – after the family’s grocery store, located on Baltimore’s Denmead Street
Norma Arica – after the opera Norma and the place where Isaiah first heard it, the Chilean port city of Arica
Fearless Mentor – because, according to Isaiah:
Most kids don’t open their eyes until they’re at least a few hours old. This one looked me straight in the eye as soon as I came in. He’s a fearless little fellow and Fearless will be his name.
Ravine Silestria – after a ravine in the Bulgarian/Romanian port city of Silistra
Norma was Thurgood Marshall’s mother. He called Fearless and Denmedia “Uncle Fee” and “Aunt Medi.”
“Fearless Williams in the News.” Baltimore and Ohio Magazine Sept. 1951: 39.
The collapse of communism (and the economy) in Albania in 1991-1992 triggered a mass exodus.
Hundreds of thousands of Albanian refugees fled to other countries — primarily nearby countries like Italy and Greece. But some refugees ended up in entirely different parts of the world, such as the United States.
Evidence of this 1991-1992 wave of Albanian immigration can be see in the sudden appearance of several rather patriotic Albanian baby names to the U.S. baby name data:
5 baby boys
9 baby girls (5 in NY)
11 baby boys (5 in NY)
21 baby girls (12 in NY)
10 baby boys (5 in NY)
5 baby girls [debut]
29 baby girls [debut] (18 in NY)
13 baby boys [debut] (8 in NY)
(“Unlisted” means the name was used fewer than 5 times — the minimum for inclusion on the national list.)
The Albanian names Liridon, Liridona and Ilirida are all based on the Albanian word liri, which means “freedom, liberty.” The one-hit wonder name Ilirida refers specifically to the “Republic of Ilirida,” a theoretical secessionist state of Macedonia proposed/declared in early 1992 by Macedonian politician Nevzat Halili (who is an ethnic Albanian).
While I think it’s most likely that these names were bestowed by recent Albanian immigrants, it’s also possible that they were used within Albanian-American families. (New York City has the largest Albanian population in the country.)
And no doubt these names became even more popular in countries that absorbed larger numbers of Albanians. In Switzerland, for instance, both Liridon and Liridona and broke into the national top 100 (!) in 1991:
16 baby girls
21 baby boys
6 baby girls
32 baby girls
19 baby boys
2 baby girls
60 baby girls
50 baby boys
4 baby girls
114 baby girls (rank: 77th)
84 baby boys
19 baby girls [debut]
181 baby girls (rank: 47th)
125 baby boys (rank: 79th)
37 baby girls
63 baby boys
11 baby girls
29 baby boys
The variants Liridone and Liridonë also show up in the Switzerland data — Liridone over 40 times in the ’80s and ’90s, Liridonë a handful of times in the ’90s.