In November of 1999, a 5-year-old Cuban boy named Elián González and his mother Elizabeth (along with others) attempted to escape Cuba and reach the U.S. The boat capsized and most of the group drowned, including Elizabeth. But Elián survived — he was found adrift several miles off the coast of Florida by a pair fishermen.
A battle for custody ensued between Elián’s maternal relatives in the U.S. and his father in Cuba. Elián essentially “became a metaphor for the passionate 40-year struggle over Cuba.”
In April of 2000, INS agents raided the house in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood where Elián, now 6, was staying. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo above was taken during the raid.) Elián was successfully retrieved and returned to Cuba.
The baby name Elian had been rare in the U.S. up to this point, but watch what happened in 1999 and 2000:
2002: 206 baby boys named Elian [rank: 816th]
2001: 271 baby boys named Elian [rank: 670th]
2000: 578 baby boys named Elian [rank: 426th]
1999: 23 baby boys named Elian
1998: unlisted (fewer than 5)
1997: unlisted (fewer than 5)
Very few of these Elians were born in Florida, which I found surprising, given the number of Cubans in Florida. Of the Elians born in 2000, 27% were born in Texas and 20% were born in California, but just 3% were born in Florida.
And let’s not forget about 21-year-old Marisleysis González, the family member who acted as Elián’s caretaker while he was in the U.S. Her name became a two-hit wonder on the charts around the same time:
2001: 10 baby girls named Marisleysis
2000: 34 baby girls named Marisleysis [debut]
Recent interviews with Elián indicate that he and Marisleysis are no longer on speaking terms, unfortunately. But the same interviews also reveal that Elián now has a fiance with a similarly intriguing name: Ilianet.
Have you ever met an Elian who was born circa 1999/2000? If so, was he aware of the story of Elián González?
Last week, Becca commented with some interesting Jeopardy! contestant names (e.g., Hobie, Dorcas) and mentioned J! Archive, which lists tens of thousands of Jeopardy! contestants going back to 1984, when the show premiered.
I skimmed through all the contestants from 1984 to 2015 (as we don’t have baby name data for 2016 yet) and spotted hundreds of unusual names. And it looks like at least two of them got a boost thanks to the show:
One-time player Alancia Wynn, a family practice physician from Virginia, was on Jeopardy! in October of 1999.
The name Brannon saw an increase in usage in 1998:
1999: 118 baby boys named Brannon
1998: 158 baby boys named Brannon
1997: 113 baby boys named Brannon
One-time player Brannon Denning, a graduate student from Connecticut, was on Jeopardy! in September of 1998. (Looks like Brannon Denning is now a law professor at Samford University.)
Alaric & Ezgi …?
These two names may have gotten a slight boost as well, though it’s hard to tell.
Alaric, in 2005. One-time player Alaric Smith was on the show in October of 2005.
Ezgi, in 2015. One-time player Ezgi Ustundag was on the show in October of 2015.
Ezgi is a female name that means “melody” in Turkish.
Anjali (false positive)
“Kids Week” contestant Anjali Tripathi was on the show in September of 1999. The same year, the baby name Anjali more than doubled in usage:
2001: 222 baby girls named Anjali
2000: 230 baby girls named Anjali
1999: 202 baby girls named Anjali
1998: 93 baby girls named Anjali
1997: 80 baby girls named Anjali
But this was a suspiciously steep rise. And it was accompanied by the debut of an alternate spelling (Anjalie). And usage didn’t drop back to normal levels the next year, as one would expect. These facts pointed me to something more high-profile than a Jeopardy! contestant.
Turns out the very successful Hindi coming-of-age romantic comedy Kuch Kuch Hota Hai had been released in 1998. The movie featured not one but two main characters named Anjali.
Here are the rest of the names that caught my eye, sorted by year:
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.)
As far as I know, the first internet- or tech-related baby name to debut on the U.S. charts was Iuma, which appeared in 2000 thanks to a baby name contest put on by the now-defunct Internet Underground Music Archive.
Like Iuma, the baby name Ariba debuted in 2000, then dropped off the list again in 2001:
2004: 10 baby girls named Ariba
2003: 7 baby girls named Ariba
2002: 8 baby girls named Ariba
2000: 11 baby girls named Ariba [debut]
Ariba may have simply been a variant spelling of the Muslim name Areeba, which started appearing in the data in the mid-1990s. The names Areebah and Aribah also debuted in the early 2000s, for instance.
On the other hand, it may have been inspired by California software company Ariba, which was making headlines around that time. The B2B company had an impressive IPO in mid-1999, and the stock price surged during 2000. (“Ariba Executes Marketplace Magic” declared The Motley Fool in July.)
Of the hundreds of technology/internet companies (WedMD, Red Hat, Priceline, iVillage, NaviSite, etc.) that went public around the same time, Ariba was one of the few with a name that sounded even remotely human.
But the stock crashed in mid-2001 with the bursting of the dot-com bubble: