I sometimes describe the Name of the Year as a time capsule in name form, and that’s especially true of this year’s choice. Unlike past selections, the 2017 NOTY Harvey points to two separate stories, both of which have sent shock waves through the year. The devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas and the torrent of accusations of sexual assault and harassment against Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein were each horrifying in themselves. Each then proved to be just the beginning of something even bigger and more sobering.
Harvey Weinstein & Hurricane Harvey. Images: Wikimedia Commons
The fact that two of the year’s biggest headline makers shared the same distinctive name was simply coincidence. But the coincidence made the name itself a story, one that continued to reverberate as the dimensions of the events became apparent. What’s more, the impact of that name story depended on the specific name.
First, a quick primer on the name Harvey. Harvey comes from an old Breton name that crossed over to England with William the Conqueror. It was a steady American choice for generations, but started to decline in the middle of the 20th century and kept on sinking. The name’s image gradually shifted from elegant to plodding. In the 21st Century, the trend finally started to turn around. Harvey became a hit revival name in England, and was starting to come back in the U.S. as well. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of American boys named Harvey rose by more than 300%.
Over the course of 2017, though, the name’s identity – its social meaning – was transformed. Today, Harvey unfortunately stands as an emblem of both environmental calamity and the prevalence of sexual harassment. Its unsettling associations could prove hard to shake. Not only were the two Harvey stories themselves part of broader issues that shaped the year, but the sense of problems being more far-reaching than we had realized was itself part of the zeitgeist. The queasy “what next?” anxiety of waiting for yet another awful shoe to drop became the year’s defining emotion.
Harvey is hardly the first baby name to be buffeted by forces outside its control. Last year, I wrote about the historically steep decline of the name Isis. Celebrity-inspired names can also plummet in popularity when bad publicity hits the star who sparked the trend, as we’ve seen with names like Kobe and Miley.
There’s even an established pattern for severe hurricanes. If the storm name is reasonably fashionable, it’s likely to experience a single-year rise in popularity, from the combination of wall-to-wall news coverage and deliberate homages by evacuee parents. A decline then follows, as the name continues to be linked with the storm and the suffering it caused. The usage of the baby name Katrina in 2005 demonstrates the pattern:
Harvey’s “time capsule” essence comes from a double whammy of these effects. But here’s a question: if Harvey is a time capsule of 2017, why isn’t Andrew a time capsule of 1992?
Hurricane Andrew, a massive category 5 storm, tore apart South Florida in the summer of ’92. It was the costliest storm in U.S. history to that point, and left dozens of people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. But even before the hurricane, 1992 had been a rough year for the name Andrew. In March, Britain’s Prince Andrew and his wife Sarah Ferguson announced their separation. Stories of their split and alleged misbehavior kept the names Andrew and Fergie in tabloid headlines all year long.
The combined lasting effect of the two stories on the name Andrew has been…well, not much. Take a look at the number of boys named Andrew in a 25-year-span surrounding 1992:
You can see that the name was a rising hit in the 1980s, peaking in 1987 and then starting to decline. That decline was temporarily slowed in 1992, the hurricane year, then continued apace until the popularity plateaued at roughly pre-surge levels. The historical curve is comparable to that of similar names like Matthew, and not notably “poisoned” by the events of ’92. Today, Andrew still ranks #34 among all U.S. boys’ names.
That would seem to bode well for the future of Harvey, except for one key difference. In the past decade, over three thousand American boys have been named Harvey. In the decade leading up to 1992, over three hundred thousand American boys were named Andrew. Andrew had so much history, so many cultural associations, that the year’s news stories couldn’t take control of it. It was too big to be poisoned.
2017’s other devastating hurricanes, Irma and Maria, aren’t likely to have much effect on baby names. Irma is too rare and out of fashion; it can essentially hibernate until the bad publicity blows over. Maria, the ultimate global classic name, is too firmly rooted for the news to budge it. Harvey, though, hits a vulnerable sweet spot. It’s uncommon enough to be distinctive, yet fashionable enough to be sensitive to trends.
As it happens, that vulnerable position is precisely the spot that’s most targeted by today’s baby-naming parents. We don’t want a name that’s out of fashion, that people will wrinkle their noses at. Yet we also don’t want anything so popular and familiar that our children will blend into the crowd. We want a name like the 2016 incarnation of Harvey: one that’s considered appealing, but unusual enough for our kid to fully own.
As Harvey shows, a name you can own is, ironically, just the kind of name that’s easiest for outside forces to steal. Storm and scandal are only two of the many possible culprits. A new celebrity could emerge and lay claim to the name, making your child sound like a namesake. Usage trends could flip the name’s gender association. Such scenarios are most likely to hit emerging names at the cutting edge of style. The more fashion-forward a name it is, the more susceptible it is to the slings and arrows of naming fortune.
My thanks to BabyNameWizard readers for your thoughtful nominations, and best wishes for the year to come!