What gave the baby name Sonji a boost in the 1960s?

Sonji Clay (Jet magazine, Feb. 1966)
Sonji Clay

According to the U.S. baby name data, the name Sonji saw a steep rise in usage during the mid-1960s:

  • 1968: 69 baby girls named Sonji
  • 1967: 98 baby girls named Sonji
  • 1966: 225 baby girls named Sonji [rank: 639th]
  • 1965 96 baby girls named Sonji
  • 1964: 35 baby girls named Sonji
  • 1963: 8 baby girls named Sonji
  • 1962: 8 baby girls named Sonji

The name reached peak usage in 1966 — the single year it ranked as one of the top 1,000 girl names in the nation.

Here’s a visual:

What made the name so trendy?

Sonji (pronounced sahn-jee) Clay, the first wife of Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay).

She met the legendary boxer as an 18-year-old cocktail waitress named Sonji Roi in July of 1964. (Earlier the same year, Ali had not only become the world heavyweight champion, but also announced that he’d joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name.) They married a month later.

Though Sonji had agreed to follow all the tenets of her husband’s religion, she refused to abide by the Muslim dress code. She told reporters:

Cassius said that Elijah Muhammad told him I was embarrassing the entire Muslim nation by not wearing the long white dresses the Muslim women are supposed to wear. […] I am not accustomed to wearing stuff like that. I’m normal, like other women.

The couple ended up divorcing in January of 1966.

The very next month, Sonji embarked upon a short-lived singing career, ultimately releasing three singles. (The second two were put out on her own label, Songee.)

According to dialogue from the 2001 biopic Ali, Sonji’s first name was inspired by that of figure skater Sonja Henie:

Ali: What kind of name is that?
Roi: My father named me after Sonja Henie.

What are your thoughts on the name Sonji?


Image: Clipping from the cover of Jet magazine (10 Feb. 1966)

One thought on “What gave the baby name Sonji a boost in the 1960s?

  1. I think it’s a cute name.
    She is adorable. I love the quote about being a normal woman. I am so glad young women don’t get married at 18 anymore, for the most part. Even if your husband is Cassius Clay, it just seems like a bad idea.

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