The name Epiphany debuted in the U.S. baby name data in 1987, and saw peak usage the next year:
1990: 37 baby girls named Epiphany
1989: 33 baby girls named Epiphany
1988: 55 baby girls named Epiphany [peak]
1987: 15 baby girls named Epiphany [debut]
Where did the come from?
The 1987 neo-noir/horror movie Angel Heart. The main character was a detective (played by Mickey Rourke), but one of the other key characters was a Louisiana teenager — and voodoo priestess — named Epiphany Proudfoot (played by Lisa Bonet).
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]
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:
The name also saw it’s highest-ever usage that year, as did the variant spelling Corretta. And another spelling, Koretta, appeared for the very first time in the data in 1968.
What was bringing all this attention to the baby name Coretta in 1968?
Coretta Scott King. She was the wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., until his assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. This event put Coretta and her children (Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice*) in the national spotlight.
Not long after the death of her husband, Coretta took Martin’s place as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. She was instrumental in establishing the national holiday Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — which happens to be today.
Coretta Scott King was named in honor of her paternal grandmother, Cora. The name Cora is a Latinized form of the ancient Greek name Kore (“maiden”), one of the epithets of the goddess Persephone.
*Usage of the names Yolanda and Dexter also increased markedly in 1968. The usage of Martin, which had been declining, saw an uptick that year. (Peak usage was in 1963, the year of MLK’s legendary “I have a dream” speech.) The usage of Bernice was seemingly unaffected by the assassination.
I chose the name Yolanda Denise, but my husband had reservations about it. He questioned whether people would call her Yolanda or would mispronounce the name. He was right. Her name is so frequently mispronounced that it bothered her when she was growing up.
There is a tendency among middle-class African Americans to give their children unusual names. Perhaps they are seeking elegance or some special identification. I fell victim to this custom, rather than following the sensible practice of naming the baby after a member of the family. Later Martin said, “If we ever have another baby girl, I’m going to give her a simple name like Mary Jane.”
When we did have another daughter, we called her Bernice Albertine, after her two grandmothers. Her name was not quite Mary Jane, but at least she was named for members of the family.
The name Raven has been given to babies of both genders for decades, but I find its female usage particularly interesting because girl-name Raven has gotten three distinct boosts from popular culture so far.
The first boost happened in 1941, when Raven debuted as a girl name in the data. (It had already popped up a few times as a boy name.)
6 babies [debut]
In October of that year, in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff, a female character named Raven Sherman died in a dramatic and memorable sequence.
Raven, “a WASP clearly modeled on Katharine Hepburn” according to one source, was an American heiress who was working at a camp for war refugees in China. She was pushed off a moving truck, died of her injuries, and was buried on an isolated Chinese hillside. “Caniff was flooded with flower deliveries, mock memorial services, petitions of condolence signed by disparate groups as factory workers and entire colleges, as well as a lot of irate letters.”
The second pop culture boost happened in the 1970s:
342 babies [rank: 533rd]
299 babies [rank: 579th]
In 1976, the soap opera The Edge of Night introduced a female character named Raven Swift (first played by Juanin Clay, then played by Sharon Gabet). She was described as “the show’s delightful young vixen-heroine” in The Soap Opera Encyclopedia. The character remained on the show until it was canceled in 1984.
And the most recent (and biggest) pop culture boost happened in the early 1990s:
2,016 babies [rank: 152nd]
2,026 babies [rank: 150th]
1,758 babies [rank: 166th]
476 babies [rank: 495th]
327 babies [rank: 612th]
It went on to peak at 139th in 1993.
The reason? Actress Raven-Symoné, who first found fame as a four year old when she started playing Olivia (Denise’s step-daughter) on the The Cosby Show in 1989. The compound name Ravensymone debuted in the data in 1990, and the spelling variant Ravensimone followed in 1991. (Her Disney Channel show That’s So Raven didn’t come along until much later.)
What are your thoughts on the name Raven? Would you use it?
Hamill, Pete. “Milton Caniff.” Masters of American Comics, edited by John Carlin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005, pp. 229-237.
During the first half of the 20th century, the name Kelly was more of a boy name than a girl name. That is, it was given far more often to baby boys than to baby girls.
But things changed in the 1950s, when the overall usage of Kelly began to rise quickly — and rise faster for girls than for boys. The first year that more girls than boys were named Kelly was 1957:
# Girls Named Kelly
# Boys Named Kelly
6,379 (rank: 74th)
2,436 (rank: 142nd)
4,471 (rank: 108th)
2,299 (rank: 148th)
1,907 (rank: 187th)
1,868 (rank: 167th)
831 (rank: 310th)
1,472 (rank: 189th)
540 (rank: 380th)
1,251 (rank: 204th)
455 (rank: 406th)
960 (rank: 225th)
226 (rank: 590th)
845 (rank: 232nd)
Even though the gender switch happened in 1957, usage for boys continued to rise for several more years. Only in 1962 then did the two trajectories finally start to diverge.
So what’s behind both the popularization and feminization of the name Kelly in the 1950s? There seem to be at least three different influences (and possibly others that I haven’t discovered yet). Here’s what I’ve got so far:
Grace Kelly: actress, most popular around 1955/1956
Kelly and Me: movie, released in 1957
Bachelor Father: television show, aired from 1957 to 1962
The movie Kelly and Me, which co-starred Piper Laurie, is weirdly reminiscent of the 2008 movie Marley and Me. Both films feature a male dog as a main character, and both titular names saw increased usage as baby names — particularly girl names — the years the movies were released. Apparently neither the species nor the gender of the character mattered much to parents. (Here’s the popularity graph for Marley.)
The TV show Bachelor Father focused on a wealthy Beverly Hills attorney named Bentley Gregg who is raising his orphaned teenage niece, a female Kelly. The show clearly gave the name Bentley a boost in the late ’50s and early ’60s, nudging it into the top 1,000 for the first time in 1961, so no doubt it also helped American audiences see Kelly as a nice name for a daughter.
Do you like the name Kelly? Do you like it more as a girl name or as a boy name? (Or does it not matter to you?)