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Madison and Her Sisters

When our daughter was born two years ago, the nurse asked what my wife and I were naming her. When we replied, "Elizabeth," the nurse gave an audible sigh of relief and said, "Thank god it's not Hannah."

Indeed, as you've likely read (or experienced), Hannah has been one of the most popular name for girls in the United States for several years, second only to Emily (Elizabeth usually places near the bottom of that top ten list).

We do know quite a few Hannahs as well as Emilys. Both are solid, traditional girl's names. But what has astounded me is the number of young girls we've met named Madison. Curious to know exactly how popular a name it was, I went to the Department of Social Security's web site and searched their table of Most Popular Names for Births in 2001. No wonder we were meeting a lot of them. Madison, which had been #3 in 2000, has traded places with Hannah and is now the second most popular name for girls in the United States. I was dumbfounded.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I didn't know anyone, male or female, named Madison. What had caused this rush in popularity? Had PBS shown a Ken Burns documentary on our fourth president that had portrayed him in a particularly impressive light? No.

I could understand perhaps a few people naming their daughters Madison in instances where it was a family name that was being passed on. My wife's father's middle name was Carson not because he was named after a soap opera character or the host of a music video request show, but because it was the last name of his great-grandmother, and several generations had borne it before him. But surely not enough people had ancestors with the last name of Madison for it to outpace such stalwarts as Abigail (#8), or even Ashley (#4).

I asked around. Everyone else seemed to have the answer. "Oh, it came from that movie 'Splash,'" I was told over and again. "Daryl Hannah played a mermaid named Madison." Upon watching the 1984 film, I learned that she chose the name at random because she happened to be on Madison Ave. at the time. Her "real" mermaid name is a very loud screech.

This seemed as plausible an explanation as any. After all, it is a fact universally acknowledged that the Jennifer craze of the 1970s was due to Ali MacGraw's character in "Love Story."

But a search of the Social Security records also revealed that Madison was not in the top ten at all from 1880 until 1997, when it suddenly arrived at #7. It has been one of the top ten names for girls every year since. Could one film single-handedly be responsible for a naming revolution? Surely we had shaken off such excesses of the 1970s.

A search of the Internet Movie Database (which advertises that it has "information on over 250,000 movies made since the dawn of cinema," including over half a million actors and actresses) reveals that only one female movie character has Madison as a first name prior to Daryl Hannah's appearance in Splash. Nita Martan received fourth billing in 1928's "Lady Be Good." Her credit reads simply as "Madison" so we don't know even know if, in the context of the film, that is her first or last name.

There have been a handful of television characters with the nickname of "Maddie" (most notably Cybill Shepherd's Maddie Hayes on Moonlighting, which premiered the year after "Splash"), but those have been diminutives of Madelyn or Madeline. "Splash" seems to be the culprit.

Looking at the records for Jennifer from 1960 to her last year in the top ten, 1992 (She shows no sign of a resurgence; she was #25 in 2001, behind Rachel, Sydney, and Destiny.), we see that she was in the top ten from 1967 to 1969. From 1970 through 1984, she was #1. From then until 1992, she slowly slid down the list.

From these numbers we can see that the name was popular in its own right, but that "Love Story" propelled it to unparalleled heights for 15 years. But that 15-year span tells us more. Our basic assumption is this: A great many people -- most likely women -- who saw "Love Story" were so taken by the character of Jennifer Cavalieri that they decided to name their daughters Jennifer. That would certainly explain why women who had children in 1970, 1971, or even 1972, would use that name. It was fresh in their minds. But why was Jennifer still #1 in 1984? The most popular films of the early 1980s were "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," yet Leia is nowhere to be seen in the Social Security tables (not even the ones that list the top 1,000 names). One possible explanation is that "Love Story" had such a profound impact on younger women and girls that they decided they would name their daughters Jennifer, whenever they eventually had them. If you were 12 years old in 1970, you were 26 in 1984; a not uncommon age to have a child. This desire can only have been reinforced by subsequent viewings of the film on television. Even as I write this, 32 years after the film's release, "Love Story" is scheduled to be shown in a few days on the Women's Entertainment channel. Say what you will about Oliver and Jennifer, they have staying power.

Why then did 26-year-old women (Mary, if you were born in 1958) having children in 1984 not rush to name their daughters Madison? Why did The Madison Explosion not occur until 13 years later?

One can easily imagine a situation where a Mary of child-bearing years sees "Splash" in 1984 and thinks Madison is a great name (after all, it was good enough for Daryl Hannah). She mentions this to her other Mary friends. They agree. The name Madison is unusual, but not odd. But then our Marys look around. Their parents did not have the foresight to imagine that a name they found appealing might be equally appealing to others in their age group. Had the mothers of all those Jennifers (also named Mary -- it was the #1 or #2 name from 1880 - 1964) checked with each other first, some of them might have gone with Ali (the actress) as opposed to Jennifer (the character).

So our Mary decides that cute as Madison is, it's bound to be "too popular" from 1984 on. She names her daughter Jessica instead. Imagine her surprise when no Madisons appear because everyone else has thought better of it as well.

Though there are no statistics on the names of the women who have named their daughters Madison, it's a safe bet that a great many of them are Jennifers. If you are a Jennifer, born in 1970, then you were 14 when "Splash" was released. How did Madison skip your older cousins and become your baby name of choice?

A sample Jennifer grew up watching "Splash" on television. In fact, the odds are she's seen it several times on cable, ingraining it more and more into her consciousness. Having experienced being one of six people to turn and look when someone calls her name, she seeks out an unusual name for her daughter. Madison certainly fits the bill. But she does not confer with her other Jennifer friends on this matter. Why? Because 1997 is a different world from 1984.

More likely than not, Jennifer does not live in the same city where she grew up. Her support network is small and scattered: her mother, her sister (Michelle), and her co-worker who just transferred from the India Division, Lakshmi. Perhaps she's in e-mail contact with some other female friends, but "What do you think of this for a baby name?" wasn't something you put in an e-mail back then. (Though in 2002 it's all over the misc.kids.pregnancy news group, allowing complete strangers to remind you that there are only so many spaces on an SAT form. You'll want that first name not to exceed the eight-character limit. Sorry, Elizabeth, you'd better start going by "Lizzie" soon.)

Jennifer was trapped by her place in time. She was sophisticated enough to wonder about the hazards of naming a child, yet she had no one with whom to discuss it.

What does the future portend? "Titanic" was released in 1997. There were numerous reports that a significant percentage of viewers were young girls watching the movie repeatedly (One theory held that it was the first film they had seen which -- like "Love Story" for an earlier generation -- had a tragic ending as opposed to an upbeat, "Hollywood Ending."). A Jessica who was 12 years old in 1997 will be 26 in the year 2011.

So where is Rose, the name of Kate Winslet's character in "Titanic", according to the statistics? It was not in the top 100 names for 2001 or 2000. It was #348 in 1997, #298 in 1998, and #276 in 1999. Clearly it's on an upswing. In 1996, the year before "Titanic", it was #1344. Rose was in the top ten almost every year from 1883 - 1902. It has not achieved that height in any year since. But it soon will.


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