Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, July 1, 2001


Photo collage of baby items

Where Gospel
meets ‘Gunsmoke’

The Bible and TV shows
inspire many a moniker

By Scott Vogel

In a way, it was a love story like any other. Kayla Brady fell for a young man by the name of Steve Johnson and set about the task of planning a life with him. Steve, whom everyone called "Patch" (owing to the eyepatch he always wore), loved Kayla deeply, so much so that he allowed her to look under the patch from time to time, which was a first for him. The couple's love grew strong and vibrant, and eventually survived despite several setbacks, most notably Kayla's being raped by Patch's older brother and an accidental explosion that left her both deaf and mute.

Happily, Kayla had regained her hearing and voice by their wedding day, which was one of the most joyous and highest-rated in "Days of Our Lives" history. The marriage lasted just a year, after which Kayla was sent to jail for murdering Patch's first wife, Marina, eventually giving birth to their daughter Stephanie Kay while in prison, a child who was later kidnapped and taken to Australia by the family nanny.

As soap opera plots go, Kayla's tale was neither original nor especially dramatic. She was just another deaf-mute woman in love with a one-eyed man. But there's another Kayla story less often told, and one more surprising and preposterous than anything the hacks at NBC could have cooked up on their own. It's the story of Kayla -- the name.


Mauka Makai cover

Let's say you were a pregnant couple in 1983 given to flipping through name books and scouting out prospects for your impending little girl. Chances are, you would have heard plenty about Jennifer, Melissa and Heather; you would have heard nothing about Kayla. She wasn't even in most books. As Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran put it in "Beyond Jennifer and Jason, Madison and Montana: What to Name Your Baby Now," the introduction of a character named Kayla on one soap opera in 1982 was the spark that set the name on fire.

In fact, almost 10 years later, parents still considered Kayla fresh and new, a sure sign, say baby name experts, that a name is on its way to overpopularity. Which leads us to some data recently released by the Social Security Administration listing the top five names given to girls and boys in the state of Hawaii during the year 2000. And Kayla, which no one had even heard of 20 years ago, now sits firmly in the No. 2 position.

This may come as dispiriting news to expectant parents with a special passion for the name Kayla, who now fear that their child's kindergarten class will come well-stocked with four or five of the creatures. Everyone deserves an individual identity, after all, and no one wants to be known as "little Kayla" or "big Kayla" just for a teacher's ease of reference.

From the good book

And lest you think Kayla is an aberration, consider the fifth most popular boy's name in Hawaii, Matthew. Biblical names have always been more popular for boys than girls, and Matthew was a bona fide New Testament star, a writer of one of the Gospels who dropped both his name (Levi) and his livelihood (tax collector) in order to follow Jesus. Nevertheless, as a name, Matthew faced extinction in the 1940s and might have disappeared altogether were it not for a certain television show that debuted in September of 1955.

Noah Lee O'Neal is 1-1/2. "We were looking at biblical names,"
his mom, Lena O'Neal, said. "We wanted a name that wasn't
in our family already, and he's the only Noah on both sides."
Noah is the second most popular name in Hawaii.

We're talking, of course, about "Gunsmoke," which week after week followed the exploits of Matt Dillon, the Wild West marshal who for 20 seasons fought to establish order and decency in lawless Dodge City. And as the show's ratings began to swell, so did the number of Matthews in maternity wards all over the country. "Gunsmoke" ended its long run in 1975 but the name it set ablaze remains a perennial favorite almost 50 years after its revival and shows no sign of ebbing.

Parents dead set on naming junior after a Gospel would be well-advised to consider Luke, although it's becoming popular too, or something with a Germanic flair like Matthias.

And speaking of Biblical names, the hands-down favorite on the mainland is Jacob, a name that just last year knocked Michael out of the top slot for the first time in almost 40 years. Here in Hawaii it's No. 3, thanks perhaps to the popular and soap opera-ready nickname Jake, although "Cub" is becoming another favorite diminutive (especially among the more -- shall we say -- sensitive Jacobs). Like Matthew, it's a name that has fluctuated wildly in its popularity, almost disappearing during the mid-20th century. According to Rosencrantz and Satran, Jacob was always a popular name among German immigrants to the U.S., and it naturally fell out of favor during America's two wars against the country from which they came. It may take a third world war to topple Jacob from the list, as it seems poised for a lengthy stay near the top.

Equally stalwart on the girl's side is eternally popular Alyssa, which has dropped to No. 17 nationally but remains a Hawaii favorite at No. 3. A descendent of the now thoroughly ignored name Alice, it also owes its popularity to a fictional world, in this case that of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," which first appeared in 1865. Soon after publication, Alice was a Victorian superstar and its popularity only began to wane after becoming associated with a few downwardly mobile TV characters. (Alice on "The Honeymooners" was a nagging blue-collar wife, while the heroine of the '70s sitcom "Alice" scraped by as a waitress in a diner.)

Hence the spawning of Alyssa which, via the employment of a strong "S" sound, softened and cleansed Alice of some of its rough edges. Bruce Lansky and Barry Sinrod's book "The Baby Name Personality Survey" sums it up this way: "Most people think of Alyssa as a pretty, sweet, feminine woman who is either active and lots of fun or refined and rather prissy."

It may sound paranoid to check one's favorite names against Lansky's and Sinrod's focus groups, which merely asked people to give their first impressions when they hear a name. But not only do first impressions count for a lot, they also frequently make some etymological sense. Consider Justin, the fourth most popular boy's name here in the islands. While for some the name conjures up images of a "cute, brown-haired, fun-loving, mischievous brat who loves to fish and roam outdoors with his dog," others say he is a "fair-minded, likable, solid citizen." And in fact the name means upright and righteous in Latin. Justins, it seems, are destined to be considered just.

Switching genders

Ashleys (Hawaii's No. 4), meanwhile, are destined for bows, frills, doll-playing and dresses designed by -- that's right -- Laura Ashley. Like many other names, it started the 20th century as a boy's moniker (e.g., Ashley Wilkes in Margaret Mitchell's monstrously popular "Gone With the Wind") and ended up switching genders as the decades wore on. (Ashley Abbott of TV's "Young and the Restless," a vivacious young woman who has endured despite break-ups, an abortion and a stint in a mental institution, may have hastened the transition.)

To some extent, this massive boy-to-girl migration is due to women's changing roles in society. But then again, men's roles are changing too, and yet not a single girl's name has ever made the reverse trek onto the boys' list. Most recently, names like Morgan, Casey and Kerry have gone girl. A few decades earlier, Alexis, Dana and Kelly jumped ship, and a few decades before that Evelyn, Florence and Lucy -- all once boys' names -- made the gender switch, never to return. (By the way, if you're one of those who's preoccupied with giving your son a permanently masculine name, experts advise you to stay away from Blake, Bailey and Dylan. All show signs of an impending sex-change.)

One name you can count on, at least for the time being, is Noah, yet another Bible favorite and Hawaii's No. 2 name for boys. This is fitting for the "second father of the human race" (as he's called in Lorilee Craker's Biblical baby name book "A is for Adam"), a man so good he was chosen by God to lead the survivors of a flood that drowned the world. Still, while it's certainly the case that Noah brought two of every animal into the ark, you should expect more than two Noahs in your little tyke's playgroup. But at least they'll all be boys, right?

This is in a way surprising, because most names that end in an "ah" sound skew girl (remember Alyssa?) Noah is a notable exception, as is the No. 1 most popular name for a baby boy in Hawaii -- drumroll, please -- Joshua. Fittingly, this chart-topper has a Biblical pedigree -- Joshua is, after all, the guy who succeeded Moses, fought the battle of Jericho and led the Israelites into the Promised Land. Nevertheless, this popular pioneer name disappeared from the lips of American moms and dads for a hundred years after the mid-19th century.

In Joshua's case, the catalyst for change was once again that infernal magic box, the television, which in 1968 brought us the irredeemably corny comedy series "Here Come the Brides." Set in an 1870s Seattle logging camp owned by the Bolt family, the show's premise was that an all-male fraternity of loggers would work more happily if a hundred women from the East Coast were imported into the camp. Lasting a mere three seasons, "Brides" is now remembered, when it is remembered at all, as having launched the careers of singer Bobby Sherman and actor/singer David Soul (later Hutch in "Starsky and Hutch"). But the show's true legacy is in the rich names it brought back into fashion -- Jeremy, Jason and Joshua. Each retains the flavor of the frontier even if few of these J-boys will ever split a log.

Taylor rules

And what happens if three TV shows -- "All My Children," "As the World Turns" and "The Bold and the Beautiful" -- all pluck the same name from obscurity? And what if it's a classic boy's name poised and ready to go girl? The result is a blockbuster name like Taylor, the most popular girl name in Hawaii for the year 2000. After flirting with the top five a few years ago, it's now No. 9 nationally and falling. But for some reason it remains a local favorite (Hawaii is the only state in the union where Taylor leads the list). Just a few years ago, Taylor was firmly in the boys' camp, but the switch was already evident by 1998 when, according to Social Security statistics, 15,000 girl Taylors were born across the country, and just 3,000 boy Taylors. It's occupied the top slot locally for three years, and its phenomenal popularity, while explainable, remains a mystery.

In fact, no one knows why some names take off even as others powder and die. It's easy to say that Biblical names are fashionable for boys, but that doesn't mean you'll be meeting anybody named Ezekiel, Boaz or Meshach any time soon. And while TV characters continue their stranglehold on parental imaginations, nary a child in this world is given a name like Beavis, Rerun or Kathie Lee. Like children themselves, names seem to have their own animus. And their ultimate fates, again like children, are finally inexplicable.

But we don't mean to discourage your own efforts at name archaeology. In fact, here's a puzzle you can mull over in your spare time. Call it "Whither Kiana?" This relatively new name is hardly mentioned in today's baby books, despite being a hit among African-American parents. One school of thought sees Kiana as a feminized version of Keanu, which is no doubt a popular name locally. Still, there's no Biblical Kiana and no TV Kiana, at least as far as we know. So how did the name jump onto the Hawaii list for the first time this year, rocketing to No. 5 with a bullet? And exactly what are Kiana's plans for world domination?

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