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?

View Results

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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 Inception of Sway

sway, gone in 60 seconds, movie, character
Angelina Jolie as Sara “Sway” Wayland

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]
  • 2000: unlisted
  • 1999: unlisted

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:

Mary, Barbara, Lindsey, Laura, Alma, Madeline, Patricia, Carol, Daniela, Stefanie, Erin, Pamela, Olga, Anne, Kate, Vanessa, Denise, Diane, Lisa, Nadine, Angelina, Rose, Susan, Tracey, Rachel, Bernadene, Deborah, Stacey, Josephine, Hillary, Kimberley, Renee, Dorothy, Donna, Samantha, Ellen, Gabriela, Shannon, Jessica, Sharon, Tina, Marsha, Natalie, Virginia, Tanya, Grace, Ashley, Cathy, Lynn, Eleanor

So, how do you feel about the name Sway? If you were having a baby girl, would you be more likely to name her something modern, like Sway, or something traditional, like Sara or Susan?

Sources: Gone in 60 Seconds (2000 film) – Wikipedia, Talk:Gone in 60 Seconds (2000 film) – Wikipedia

The Rise of Angelina & Jolie

Angelina Jolie, Tomb Raider, 2001, movie

Actress Angelina Jolie was a rising star in the late ’90s and early 2000s, thanks to movies like Gia (1998), Girl, Interrupted (1999), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).

But she wasn’t just becoming a familiar face in the movie theaters — she was also having a strong influence on baby names. In 2000, the name Jolie broke into the U.S. top 1,000 for the first time, and, a year later, the name Angelina entered the top 100 for the first time:

Angelina usage (ranking)Jolie usage (ranking)
20034,271 baby girls (71st)377 baby girls (691st)
20023,979 baby girls (74th)412 baby girls (620th)
20013,368 baby girls (93rd)385 baby girls (655th)
20002,140 baby girls (157th)275 baby girls (820th)
19991,327 baby girls (237th)152 baby girls (1,241st)
19981,167 baby girls (268th)109 baby girls (1,536th)

Best of all, though, are the debuts of Anjolina and Anjolie — names that cleverly blend “Angelina” with “Jolie” — in 2000. I know of other actresses (e.g., Cyd Charisse, Pier Angeli) who popularized both their first and last names, but Angie is the only one I know of to inspire mash-ups like this.

Which name do you like better for a baby girl, Angelina or Jolie? (Or do you prefer one of the portmanteaus?)

Source: Angelina Jolie – Rotten Tomatoes

The Start of Sylar

sylar, character, heroes, baby name,
Quinto as Sylar

The futuristic-sounding name Sylar debuted in the U.S. baby name data in 2006:

  • 2010: 76 baby boys named Sylar
  • 2009: 91 baby boys named Sylar [peak]
  • 2008: 47 baby boys named Sylar
  • 2007: 38 baby boys named Sylar
  • 2006: 9 baby boys named Sylar [debut]
  • 2005: unlisted

(A smattering of baby girls have been named Sylar as well.)

What put this name on the onomastic map?

Sylar, the primary antagonist of the TV show Heroes (2006-2010). Played by Zachary Quinto, Sylar was a super-human serial killer with a strong desire to feel special and admired. So, he hunted down other people with super-human powers, killed them, and absorbed their abilities.

Sylar’s birth name was Gabriel Gray, and he was originally a watchmaker. Upon giving up his old way of life, he adopted an alter-ego and renamed himself Sylar, taken from a (fictitious) brand of watches. Here’s how one author described the name change:

In Sylar’s mind, Gabriel Gray [had] become “a name.” Unlike an anonymous watchmaker, who — despite the implications of his job title — does not really make watches, but in fact only repairs broken watches brought in by equally anonymous customers, Sylar [took] his name and thus his identity from an origin that [implied] both a certain level of activity and creativity — in that the brand really [did] produce watches — and [constituted] a brand thus signifying fame and achievement.

What are your thoughts on the baby name Sylar? (Do you like it more or less than the similar name Skylar?)

Sources:

  • Caeners, Torsten. “”You’re Broken. I Can Fix You”: Negotiating Concepts of U.S. Ideology.” Investigating Heroes: Essays on Truth, Justice and Quality TV, ed. by David Simmons, McFarland & Company, 2012, pp. 130-143.
  • Sylar – Wikipedia

The War-Inspired Name Nasiriyah

The name Nasiriyah was a one-hit wonder in the U.S. baby name data in 2003:

  • 2005: unlisted
  • 2004: unlisted
  • 2003: 15 baby girls named Nasiriyah [debut]
  • 2002: unlisted
  • 2001: unlisted

Where did “Nasiriyah” come from, and what happened in 2003 to draw people’s attention to it?

It came from the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. The city was founded and named after a local sheikh name Nasir in the 1870s. (The Arabic name Nasir means “helper.”)

The event that introduced Nasiriyah to the American public was the Iraq War (which overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein and, thereby, had an influence on Iraqi baby names). The Battle of Nasiriyah, one of the first major battles of the war, was fought between U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces and lasted from March 23 to April 2.

(One of the female soldiers involved in the battle, Jessica Lynch, had a baby girl in 2007 and gave her the middle name Ann in honor of Lori Ann Piestewa, the first woman in the U.S. military killed in the Iraq War.)

What do you think of Nasiriyah as a baby name? Do you like it more or less than the similar names Nayirah and Nasiya?

Sources: Nasiriyah – Wikipedia, U.S. Marines in Battle: An-Nasiriyah (PDF)