They call the girl Mariah

Trends in baby names can be traced to several factors: parents’ perceptions of the name’s popularity (which can work either for or against), cyclical cultural preferences for certain phonemes (of 2006’s top 20 girls’ names, 11 end in “-a,” compared with only 3 in 1936), etc. But when a name rockets into the top 30 from below the top 100, there’s a good chance popular culture is responsible.

Indeed, this year’s big story in baby-name trends is that the girls’ name Addison has risen from #106 in 2005 to #27 in 2006. The fact that it rhymes with a name that’s been comfortably ensconced in the top 5 for this entire decade (you know the one) certainly helps its cause, in the same way that the boys’ name Aidan/-en has lately spawned a slew of similar-sounding imitators. But I’d bet anything that it’s mostly to do with hit show Grey’s Anatomy, which through this past season featured the character of Dr. Addison Montgomery (played by Kate Walsh).

Every year, there’s at least a couple of these pop culture-inspired names, from Kanye (which debuted at #487 in 2004) to Dawson (up from #734 to #175 the year after a certain Creek debuted on TV) to Aaliyah (the highest debut ever, #202 in 1994). It’s not always easy to trace hot names directly to celebrities and the media, however. For instance, it’s tempting to argue that, if Grey’s Anatomy could work such wonders on Addison, then it’s also responsible for the recent rises in Isaiah and Preston (Isaiah Washington portrays the show’s Dr. Preston Burke). But both names began their ascendancy long before the show premiered, and though both broke out of a rut in 2006 (Isaiah rose to #40 after spending six years between #45 and #49; Preston rose to #114 after six years between #142 and #155), the leaps just aren’t large enough to be attributed to TV, rather than, say, approved phonemes (two new entries in the boys’ top 20 this past year were Noah and Logan).

The 2007 data set may provide us with more evidence. Since many pop culture-inspired names are flashes in the pan (in 2005 Kanye set a record for the most precipitous fall from one year to the next), a sudden drop-off could be telling. I’ve been watching a lot of The O.C. on DVD lately, so I was interested to note that Marissa and Summer, both on the downswing, made brief resurgences in 2004, the show’s first full year on the air, and then fell again as the novelty wore off.

Then again, a name like Mariah, which jumped from #561 to #269 in 1990, the year Ms. Carey debuted on the pop charts, and to #69 the year thereafter, has had its fortunes tied to its inspiration’s career for nearly 20 years now. Witness:

In October 1995 the singer’s Daydream was released, which went on to become the best-selling album of her career; for 25 weeks between September 1995 and March 1996, there was only one week in which a song of hers was not #1, including “One Sweet Day” (a duet with Boyz II Men), which spent a record 16 straight weeks at the top. No surprise, then, that the name peaked in 1996, with 5,442 babies named Mariah that year.

In September 2001 she starred in the film Glitter, which received uniformly terrible reviews, and its accompanying soundtrack became the worst-selling album of her career. In turn, while the name Mariah was given to at least 4,000 babies in each year during the period 1991-2000, by 2002 it sank to 2,664.

In April 2005 Carey came out with The Emancipation of Mimi, which was widely heralded as her comeback: it gave her her first #1 single in five years and garnered eight Grammy nominations. True to form, the name Mariah experienced a renaissance, and in 2006, it was back over 4,000 again.

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