Influential Baby Names: Star Athletes

December 4, 2016 NancyMan

By Nancy Man, Nancy’s Baby Names

The excitement generated by the recent Chicago Cubs World Series win – and by all the regular and post-season games leading up to it – could end up having an impact on the baby name charts in 2016. (I’m looking at you, Wrigley!)

But this shouldn’t be too surprising. Sports have been influencing baby names since the late 1800s. And I’m not just talking about the most high-profile sports like baseball, football, and basketball. I’m also talking about figure skating, gymnastics, running, skiing, rowing, boxing, car racing, horse racing, soccer, tennis, golf, the martial arts, and more.

As proof, here are a dozen sportspeople whose rise to fame can be linked to at least one baby name appearing on the U.S. baby name charts for the very first time:

Alcindor & Jabbar

Let’s kick things off off with Kareem AbdulJabbar, one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He’s behind not one but two debuts. While playing for UCLA in the late ‘60s, he was known as Lew Alcindor. The French surname Alcindor (which is likely related to Alexander) popped up on the U.S. baby name charts in 1968. He converted to Islam in 1968 and officially changed his name to Kareem AbdulJabbar in 1971 while playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. The Arabic name Jabbar, which means “powerful,” debuted in 1972.


Professional bull rider Cauy Hudson of Nebraska was particularly successful in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. His first name, which is pronounced “coy,” debuted in the U.S. baby name data in 1999 and usage peaked nationally the next year. The SSA’s state-by-state data suggests that usage was concentrated in the Midwest.


At the age of 14, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect 10 for her routine on the uneven bars at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada. That same year, her surname became a one-hit wonder on the U.S. baby name charts. The surname Comaneci refers to the Cumans, a nomadic Turkic group that lived in Eastern and central Europe from the 11th to the 13th centuries.


Boxer James J. Corbett became the world heavyweight champion after defeating John L. Sullivan in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1892. The same year, his surname debuted rather impressively on the early U.S. baby name charts (which only go back to 1880). The English surname Corbett can be traced back to an Anglo-Norman French word meaning “little raven.” It would have originally referred to someone with a dark complexion or dark hair.


The decathlete then known as Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn Jenner) won a gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics. That same year, his surname debuted on the U.S. baby name charts. The surname comes from either England or Germany; in England it was an occupational name for an engineer (typically a builder of military machines) and in Germany it either referred to the month of January or was derived from the Roman name Januarius.


Before he turned pro, Nigerian-born basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon played for the University of Houston from 1980 to 1984. His surname debuted in the U.S. baby name data in 1983, the year he was voted the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player (despite the fact that his team lost to North Carolina State in the championship game).


Downhill skier Picabo Street won a gold medal in the super giant slalom (a.k.a. super-G) at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. That year, her unique name appeared for the first and only time on the U.S. baby name charts. It was inspired by the Idaho town of Picabo, which took its name from a Native American word meaning “shining waters.”


Rafer Johnson won the gold medal in the decathlon with a record-breaking 8,392 points at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. His name debuted in the U.S. baby name data the next year. According to his autobiography, Rafer was named after one of his father’s childhood friends.


Figure skater Tenley Albright won a silver medal at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway. She went on to become the sport’s first “triple crown” winner in 1953. And 1953 is the year we see her name appear for the first time in the U.S. baby name data. How did she get the name Tenley? When she asked her mother, her mother said: “I just liked the sound.”


During the late 1990s, Ukari Figgs was a standout player on the women’s basketball team at Purdue University. In 1999, Purdue won the NCAA Championship and Figgs was voted the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and in 1999 the name Ukari name appeared on the U.S. baby name charts for the first and only time.


In 2007, the UFC – famous for holding fights inside a trademarked “Octagon” cage – signed Brazilian-born MMA fighter Wanderlei Silva. Silva won both “Fight of the Year” and “Knockout of the Year” at the first annual World MMA Awards in 2008. That year, both Wanderlei (pronounced “vahn-deh-lay”) and the logical variant Vanderlei debuted in the U.S. baby name data. Silva’s first name is based on the Dutch surname Van der Leij, which originally referred to a place where slate (lei) was produced.


Baseball catcher Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra played for the New York Yankees from 1946 until 1963. About halfway into his major-league career, in 1953, the name Yogi appeared for the first time in the U.S. baby name data. How did Berra get his memorable nickname? One of his childhood friends thought Berra resembled a yogi they’d seen in a movie, so he started calling him “Yogi” and the nickname stuck.

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