What turned Sugar into a baby name?

The character Sugar Kane from the movie "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965).
Sugar Kane from “Beach Blanket Bingo

The rare baby name Sugar has an interesting pattern of usage in the U.S. data. It appeared as a boy name during the ’50s, then switched to a girl name in the ’60s—except for an interesting one-year return to the boys’ list in the ’80s.

Graph of the usage of the baby name Sugar in the U.S. since 1880
Usage of the baby name Sugar

The initial appearance in 1951 was no doubt influenced by boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who fought professionally from the ’40s to the ’60s. A number of the 1950s Sugars had “Ray” and “R.” in the middle spot, according to records.

  • 1955: 5 baby boys named Sugar
  • 1954: unlisted
  • 1953: 6 baby boys named Sugar
  • 1952: 7 baby boys named Sugar
  • 1951: 5 baby boys named Sugar [debut]
  • 1950: unlisted
  • 1949: unlisted

Interestingly, he was retired throughout 1953 and most of 1954. (He tried to launch a career as a tap-dancing entertainer during that time.)

The switcheroo in the ’60s was influenced by something a little more obscure: a character in the 1965 movie Beach Blanket Bingo. The film starred Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, but also featured a singing character named Sugar Kane (played by Linda Evans).

  • 1967: unlisted
  • 1966: unlisted
  • 1965: 6 baby girls named Sugar
  • 1964: unlisted
  • 1963: unlisted

That was the only ’60s appearance, but the name came back for all of the ’70s. Two pop culture influences that probably helped usage roll along during that decade were the 1971 song “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones and the 1974 movie Sugar Hill, starring Marki Bey (who had put the name Marki on the map several years earlier) as the title character.

Finally, there’s that anomalous, single-year return to the boys’ side of the list:

  • 1982: 5 baby girls named Sugar
  • 1981: 11 baby boys named Sugar
  • 1980: 5 baby girls named Sugar

My best guess here is boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, who fought from the ’70s to the ’90s. The specific reason might have been “The Showdown” — his highly publicized fight against Thomas Hearns in September of 1981.

What are your thoughts on “Sugar” as a name? Do you think of it more as a girl name or as a boy name?

P.S. Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith. Sugar Ray Leonard was born Ray Charles Leonard — named after the singer, then nicknamed after the original Sugar Ray.

Some thought he was arrogant when [Sugar Ray Leonard] usurped the nickname Sugar Ray, after the man many consider boxing’s best fighter, pound-for-pound. But not the one person who counted.

“I’m gratified he’s using my name,” Sugar Ray Robinson said. “It’s great when kids think enough of you to use your name.”

Sources: Sugar Ray Robinson, 67, Dies – LA Times, Sugar Ray Leonard – Wikipedia, Leonard as sweet as original Sugar Ray

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