Where did the baby name Yaphet come from in 1971?

Actor Yaphet Kotto as the character Dr. Kananga in the movie "Live and Let Die" (1973).
Yaphet Kotto in “Live and Let Die

The uncommon name Yaphet first appeared in the U.S. baby name data in 1971, and it saw peak usage the very next year:

  • 1973: 15 baby boys named Yaphet
  • 1972: 20 baby boys named Yaphet [peak]
  • 1971: 9 baby boys named Yaphet [debut]
  • 1970: unlisted
  • 1969: unlisted

Where did it come from?

African-American actor Yaphet (pronounced YAH-fet) Kotto — though it’s hard to know what caused the name to debut/peak in those years specifically.

The influence couldn’t have been Kotto’s memorable depiction of corrupt Caribbean dictator Dr. Kananga in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die (1973).

The 1971 and 1972 usage must have been influenced by something earlier — perhaps his starring role in the 1970 TV movie Night Chase (which also featured David Janssen), or the coverage he was receiving in African-American magazines (like Jet and Ebony) around that time.

Actor Yaphet Kotto on the cover of Jet magazine (Mar. 1967).
Kotto on the cover of Jet in 1967

His role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the early 1977 TV movie Raid on Entebbe not only earned him an Emmy nomination, but also likely helped popularize the names Idi and Amin. (Though these names were also being influenced by current events, by a similar TV movie called Victory at Entebbe, and by a list of African names in Ebony magazine.)

Later on, he had parts in the sci-fi–horror film Alien (1979) and the dystopian action film The Running Man (1987).

His name dropped out of the baby name data during the 1980s, but returned in 1994, no doubt thanks to Kotto’s role on the lauded TV series Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999).

Yaphet Kotto was born in New York City in 1939 to parents who had converted to Judaism. His first name is based on the Hebrew name Yefet, meaning “enlarged.” (The Biblical name Japheth is also based on Yefet.)

What are your thoughts on the name Yaphet?


4 thoughts on “Where did the baby name Yaphet come from in 1971?

  1. The name is not for me, but I love the actor. Homicide: Life on the Street was one of the best network tv shows ever, and somebody needs to get that show onto a streaming service, ASAP!

  2. I am familiar with the name Japheth from the Old Testament story of Noah, who had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Interesting to see Japheth is related to Yaphet.

  3. I wonder when the casting news for Live or Let Die came out? I wasn’t around then, but I’m guessing Bond movies were a big enough deal that casting announcements might have gotten into relatively mainstream entertainment magazines, and then I could see a thought process like “Who? Oh yeah, that guy from Night Chase / that article I read in Jet a couple years ago… hey, he’s got a pretty cool name…”

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