In 2015, Scarlett was the 22nd most popular baby name for females. There are more new Scarletts than Annas, Mollys, Ashleys, Natalies, or Samanthas. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, there was once a time when no one named their baby Scarlett. I don’t mean that hyperbolically. There was no one named Scarlett. It wasn’t a real name.
The Social Security Administration has listings of baby names going all the way back to 1880. Any baby name that appeared more than five times in a given year is in the data. Between 1880 and 1936 there was not a single baby Scarlett, or Scarlet. (The raw Social Security Administration data I used for names comes here. The total number of babies born each year was found here. My data differs slightly from other sources who did not use number of Social Security card holders as their denominator when determining rates)
How did Scarlett enter the top of the baby-naming charts from nothingness? I decided to dive into the world of literature to examine five examples of names being popularized or given a bump by our favorite works of literature.
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was published in 1936. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and went on to be Publishers Weekly’s No. 1 best-selling for two straight years. The protagonist with the unusual-at-the-time name, Scarlett O’Hara, was becoming iconic. In 1937 there were seven babies named Scarlett born. The film version of the blockbuster book came out in 1939 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It grossed more money, when adjusted for inflation, than any movie ever made. Fifty-nine Scarletts were born in 1940 as the name finally crossed into the top 1000.
Below is a chart showing the number of Scarletts born for every 100,000 female babies.
Despite the runaway success of the movie, Scarlett remained a consistent but uncommon name for the next 60 years. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Scarlett exploded.
The 1991 book Scarlett, a sequel to Gone With the Wind, was the best-selling novel of 1991. You can see the name got a slight bump in the early 1990s. But I would argue a growth in Gone With the Wind fans is not the direct reason for the surge of Scarletts in recent years. The name started to sound normal and hip enough for everyone to name their baby Scarlett. And a few notable celebs, like Scarlett Johansson, couldn’t have hurt. I can’t get in the head of tens of thousands of new parents to know the conscious (or more likely subconscious) moment they heard the name and decided they loved it. In any case, without Margaret Mitchell and the wild success of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett would still be absent from the baby name listing.
My new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, comes out this week, so it makes sense to turn next to names inspired by the celebrated novelist. Nabokov’s most famous novel is Lolita, the story of a 36-year-old man and his relationship with the 12-year-old eponymous character. Lolita is not a villain or bad person. However, it is hard to imagine reading the novel and thinking to yourself, “I’m going to have a daughter, and I want her to be just like Lolita.”
But even when it comes to literature and baby names, any press is good press—at least for a while.
When Lolita, through book and film release, became mainstream in America, the popularity of the name almost increased fivefold. But since then, the name has sunk to the bottom of the baby-naming barrel. Its popularity since 1990 has been consistently very low. In the long run, Lolita probably has done more damage to the name than good. It’s impossible to see a baby-name counterfactual, but who knows how many baby Lolitas would be crawling around today if it weren’t for Lolita?
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was published in 1938. It won the National Book Award, became the third best-selling novel of the year, and has gone on to be considered one of the best works of literature.
Unlike Scarlett and Lolita, Rebecca was a popular name before the book. It’s just that the popularity of the book, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 movie adaptation, caused the name to grow for years.
Rebecca has had a roller coaster ride for the last 115 years. Again, it’s impossible to pin down exactly how much Rebecca altered Rebecca, but I would wager it is the main reason it ever had a resurgence. The name had been consistent between 1915 and 1939 and spiked for decades right after.
I’ve also included the dates of two major (though certainly not as major as the Alfred Hitchcock movie) adaptations of Rebecca. The data is noisy, so it’s tough to say if these altered the popularity of Rebecca at all, but the timing of these TV series preceded rapid falls. They may not have been the dagger that killed the name, but they certainly did not revive it like the original book did.
For millions of expecting parents each year, agreeing on a baby name is a difficult choice. But for three straight years, between 2011 and 2013, more parents in the United States choose to name their daughter Sophia than any other name. You can thank Sophie’s Choice for this choice.
Following the same pattern as many of the novels I’ve mentioned, Sophie’s Choice won the National Book Award, was the second most sold novel of the year, and was followed soon after by a movie.
The story of the data is not completely straightforward. The name Sophia began to spike right after the book. And once the movie was released, the name Sophie became an increasingly popular alternative to the more classic Sophia.
The name didn’t grow to great heights for another fifteen years, and it’s possible it would have done so without the William Styron novel. The name Sophia almost doubled after the release of the movie and never dwindled back down to its old levels. It was in a good position to grow in massive popularity because of the bump Sophie’s Choice had given it.
I don’t even know if I need to explain the massive popularity of the Twilight series. I’m assuming you either love or hate the series. I’m also assuming you are either obsessed with it or haven’t opened the book to Page 1.
For those of you who haven’t read Twilight, the protagonist is Bella. For those of you who have read Twilight, don’t worry: I have read it too, so please don’t send me emails begging me to give it a try.
The Twilight series has changed the name Bella forever. However, it’s not clear, yet, in what direction. The problem is that Stephenie Meyer happened to pick a name that was already primed to become massively popular. In 1990 there were 28 Bellas born, and in 2010 there were over 5,000. But even though the first Twilight book came out in 2005 and the first movie in 2008, it’s unclear how much it is related.
Look at the chart below and the growth of Bella pre-2005.
Perhaps more significant than the initial spikes is the fact that shortly after the series went mainstream by hitting theatres, the name Bella lost momentum.
There are dozens of literary characters that, consciously or subconsciously, positively or negatively, have had an effect on the popularity of names. I didn’t go out of my way to pick five female names, but from my searching they were the names with the most significant change after book releases.
Based on my own conjecture, part of the problem is that male characters are more likely to be given ordinary names (Tom Sawyer, Jay Gatsby, Alex Cross, Jack Ryan). And those with standard but still uncommon name see little increase. Harrison has grown a modest 75 percent since the first Harry Potter book in 1997, and the popularity of Harry has actually declined. Ron and Ronald have decreased by more than 50 percent.
And even when there is a massive popular male protagonist with an interesting name, there seems to be little impulse to name baby boys after them. The Social Security Administration has never, since its starting history in 1880, recorded a baby Frodo. It’s not the same for female characters in fantasy series. Though the name suffered an 80-year drought between 1923 and 2002, in 2003 the United States welcomed five baby Hermoines.