What brought the baby name Wanakee back in 1982?

African-American fashion model Wanakee Pugh on the cover of Ebony magazine (Jan. 1983).
Wanakee Pugh

The unusual name Wanakee popped up in the U.S. baby name data once in the late 1950s, then returned for a stretch in during the 1980s:

  • 1987: unlisted
  • 1986: 6 baby girls named Wanakee
  • 1985: unlisted
  • 1984: 8 baby girls named Wanakee
  • 1983: 8 baby girls named Wanakee
  • 1982: 10 baby girls named Wanakee
  • 1981: unlisted
  • 1980: unlisted

What brought it back?

African-American fashion model Wanakee (pronounced WAH-nah-kee) Pugh — known mononymously as Wanakee over the course of her modeling career, which spanned the 1980s and ’90s.

Pugh’s career took off in the [early] 1980s as she rose to the status of “top model” […] She graced the fashion runways and faced the flashbulbs of New York City, Paris and Milan, and her face was seen on dozens of magazine covers and advertising campaigns.

Those covers included Vogue, Glamour, Self, Essence, and Ebony.

Here’s how Ebony described the start of Wanakee’s career in the mid-1980s:

Wanakee was employed as a fashion illustrator when, at the urging of her mother, she traveled to Detroit to try her hand at modeling. Her career really took off four years ago, when she moved to New York.

In New York, Wanakee’s big break came when future fashion designer Vera Wang — at that time working as an editor at Vogue — decided to feature Wanakee as a “new face” in the magazine.

How Pugh came to be named Wanakee I don’t know, but I do know that the name has been used for a handful of Native American characters in the movies and on TV.

It’s also a geographical name. There’s a village in Wisconsin called Waunakee, for instance. The village’s name was likely based on the Ojibwa word wanaki, defined by a mid-19th-century missionary as: “I inhabit a place in peace, undisturbed, I live somewhere in peace.”

What are your thoughts on the name Wanakee?


Image: © 1983 Ebony

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