How Star Athletes Influence Baby Names

How Star Athletes  Influence Baby Names

By Kate at Sancta Nomina (Katherine Morna Towne)

We can all think of people we’d be proud to have our children named after (beloved grandmothers, influential mentors) and those who turn us off of certain names (students you taught, your quirky next-door-neighbor), but today I want to focus on well-known athletes and their power to influence (or wreak havoc) on our baby naming.

I’ll start with two personal stories: First, I love the name Joachim, but my husband has only heard the name on NBA player Joakim Noah and therefore will not consider it, as he doesn’t want people to think we’ve named our son after a basketball player. This is despite the fact that there are a million and one Joachims who play professional hockey and (European) football — but those aren’t sports my family follows, so they’re off the radar and do nothing to help my cause.

Second, we had a conversation recently about how my brother and sister-in-law might like the name Russell for their baby boy but my husband was sure they’d never use it because of the Seahawks quarterback. (I would never have thought of that and my brother concurred.)

I asked my blog readers if their naming had also been disrupted by celebrity athletes, and got some great (and funny) feedback. Here’s a sample:

  •  “I can think of a few female athletes whose names would be off the table for me based on association alone:

  • Tonya (Tonya Harding aka the Nancy Kerrigan knee-whacker)

    Hope (Hope Solo, goalie for US women’s soccer, arrests for domestic violence, etc)

    Marion (Marion Jones, track-and-field star who lost her medals for doping)”

    “[My] husband has nixed [Elias] 3 times now because of Patrik Elias, a Czech hockey player whom literally no other person I know has heard of. Grrr. He also shot down Emmett because of Emmitt Smith (NFL), but I didn’t mind that one as much. And I want Oscar for this baby boy (if I can’t have Elias!) but my secretary said her first association is with Oscar Pistorius, which gives me pause.”

  • “I loved the idea of Dante when I was pregnant with our son eleven years ago. But my husband (and brother-in-law), both said that it was a name for a jock, probably a football player. Think Dante Culpepper—and I think they had three or four others they mentioned, too. So … I get it. But I’m half-Italian, and argued that the literary reference was a thousand times more significant. But no. Totally lost that one.”

  • The examples I’ve given so far have been negative ones, but the well-known-athlete influence works the other way too. One of my readers took the time to look up various athletes’ names and noted that there were surges in the popularity of those names on the SSA charts after the athletes became known, including Nadia (Comaneci), Serena (Williams), Kareem (Abdul Jabbar), and Kobe (Bryant). Another pointed out how many baby boys named Brady (Tom) she encounters in her home state of Massachusetts.

    My husband, who won’t consider Joachim because of Mr. Noah, has (only semi-jokingly?) suggested LeBron (James), Donovan (McNabb), and Johnny Benson (as a first-middle combo) during our discussions of boys’ names and when I told him I was going to suggest Tristan to my brother and SIL for their second boy—a name that I’ve found to be pretty polarizing between men (who tend to dislike it) and women (who often love it)—he told me he “doesn’t hate it” and that “Tristan Thompson is pretty well known right now as a basketball player.” So. Apparently that makes a previously not-okay name now okay.

    Another example is Steph Curry. Before he was known, if I’d suggested “Steph” as a possible nickname for a boy, I can almost guarantee my husband and family members would have immediately shut it down. Now? Perhaps it’s still not their favorite, but they’d certainly acknowledge that it’s got impeccable credentials as a “manly name.” Jackie (Robinson) and Connie (Mack) are two similar names that don’t get much use for boys these days, but all I’d have to do is call to mind the names’ athletic histories and point out the ease and affection with which one can yell, “Jackie!” from the dugout or the sidelines and I could see baseball enthusiasts melting.

    I think what I find the most irritating about the influence the names of well-known athletes have on general American baby naming (and elsewhere?) is its extremely subjective nature and lack of predictability. Certainly we’re all vulnerable to changes in reputation, especially and appropriately if we behave badly (the name Kobe dropped nearly in half the year after Bryant’s sexual assault accusations), but few of us have reputations so tied to something we can’t always control (e.g., a team’s success during a particular season) nor to such a narrow and fleeting aspect of our lives –i.e., athletic talent.

    What do you think of the effect well-known athletes have on baby naming? Have you experienced baby naming angst because of a particular athlete?