You can tell how much Americans are inspired by famous actresses by looking at the baby name charts! When a new leading lady hits the scene, it’s almost expected that her name will become an influential baby names choice for newborns – at least for a little while.
This effect is especially easy to see with actresses that have uncommon, never-charted names. When they first become celebrities, their names get a boost – often enough for those names to appear in the SSA’s baby name data for the very first time.
Here are a dozen historical actresses, most of whom caused at least one debut appearance on the charts, and the stories behind their distinctive names:Cherrill
Actress Virginia Cherrill, one-time wife of Cary Grant, starred opposite Charlie Chaplin in the 1931 romantic comedy City Lights. The same year, the baby name Cherrill appeared on the U.S. baby name charts for the first time. Virginia Cherrill’s surname sounds like Cheryl, but the two names aren’t related. The surname originally denoted someone from Cherhill, a village in South West England.
Actress Cybill Shepherd’s first film role was in the 1971 drama The Last Picture Show. The name Cybill debuted on the charts the very next year. Cybill Shepherd’s first name may seem like a creative take on Sibyl – and, in a sense, it is – but it’s also a tribute to the her grandfather Cyrus (Cy) and her father William (Bill).
Cyd & Charisse
Cyd Charisse began dancing on-screen in the mid-1940s with minor roles in movies like Ziegfeld Follies (1946). The names Cyd and Charisse both landed on the baby name charts around this time, making Cyd Charisse one of the few actresses to trigger an onomastic double-debut. Cyd Charisse’s birth name was Tula Ellice Finklea. Cyd was a respelling of the childhood nickname Sid (itself a corruption of “sis”) and Charisse was the surname of her first husband.
Actress Debra Paget’s first film role was in the 1948, and she went on to star in several major movies of the ‘50s, including Broken Arrow, The Ten Commandments, and Love Me Tender (with Elvis Presley!). The name Paget first appeared in the SSA’s data precisely in 1948, and the name Debra, already being given to hundreds of babies per year in the late ‘40s, became wildly popular in the 1950s. Debra is a streamlined variant of the Biblical name Deborah, which means “bee” in Hebrew, and the surname Paget is basically a diminutive form of the occupational word “page.”
Actress Francelia Billington started appearing in silent films in 1912. That same year, the fanciful name Francelia first appeared on the charts. As far as I can tell, this is the earliest case of a baby name debut being caused by an actress. In terms of etymology, Francelia could be seen as a combination of Frances, meaning “Frenchman,” and Celia, meaning “sky, heaven.”
Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr starred in more than a dozen Hollywood films during the early 1940s, so it’s no surprise that the baby name Hedy saw its highest usage during the same period. Peak popularity was in 1941 and 1942, when Hedy ranked 697th and 712th respectively. Hedy Lamarr’s birth name was Hedwig, which was derived from a pair of Germanic words that happen to have very similar meanings: “battle” and “war.”
Actress Janet Gaynor’s (shown) film career began in the mid-1920s. She won the very first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929, and she remained popular through most of the 1930s. The name Gaynor debuted on charts as a girl name in the mid-1920s and the name Janet, already popular, became markedly more so in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. Janet can be traced back to the Biblical name John, which means “Yahweh is gracious” in Hebrew, and the Celtic surname Gaynor is thought to mean “son of Finbar.”
Although her credits date back to the 1920s, actress Myrna Loy’s rise to stardom began with her role in the 1934 comedy-mystery The Thin Man, based on the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name. The name Myrna correspondingly saw peak usage from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s. It was most popular in 1938, when it was ranked 134th. Myrna Loy’s first name is an Anglicized form of the Irish name Muirne. Her father discovered her name while riding the railroad: Myrna was the name of a whistle stop in Nebraska.
Actress Nastassja Kinski won the Golden Globe for New Star of the Year in 1981 for her role in the 1979 film Tess (which wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1980). The German-born actress’s name was spelled “Nastassia” for U.S. audiences, and in 1981 the name Nastassia debuted on the U.S. charts. The j-version of the name didn’t show up until a few years later. The name Nastassja is a variation of Anastasia, which is based on an ancient Greek word meaning “resurrection.”
Pier & Angeli
Actress Pier Angeli won the same Golden Globe award that Kinski won, but nearly 30 years earlier for her role in the film Teresa (1951). Like Cyd and Charisse, the names Pier and Angeli both debuted as girl names on the charts thanks to a single actress, but in this case they appeared in the same year: 1953.
The trendy girl name Piper might not even exist today if not for actress Piper Laurie, whose film debut was in the 1950 comedy Louisa (starring future president Ronald Reagan). The next year, the baby name Piper popped up on the U.S. charts for the first time. The professional name Piper Laurie was coined as a more memorable and modern-sounding alternative to the actress’s birth name, Rosetta Jacobs.
Stage actress Siobhan McKenna, arguably Ireland’s first international star, is best known for playing Joan of Arc in the 1956 off-Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. The name Siobhan debuted on the U.S. charts in 1956, and various phonetic versions of the name (like Shevawn, Shevonne, and Shivaun) also debuted in the mid-1950s. Siobhan McKenna’s birth name was Siobhan Giollamhuire Nic Cionnaith. Like Janet, Siobhan is derived from the Hebrew name John.