Who killed off Heather? How a popular name almost disappeared

Did Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, seen here in the film <i>Heathers</i>, kill off the name Heather?

Did Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, seen here in the film Heathers, kill off the name Heather? Photo: publicity still

Heather is doomed to extinction – not the bonny wee plant with pink or purple flowers, but the name for girls. Forty-three years ago it was the third-most popular girls’ name in the US, with more than 24,000 babies registered as Heather.

Last year, the name fell out of the top 1000 most popular, with only 291 Heathers born there.

The death of Heather was this week widely blamed on the 1988 bleak Winona Ryder comedy Heathers. The film, as described by The Atlantic monthly, was about two high school students “who unintentionally make suicide popular” among their peers.

The Heathers in question were the school’s malicious popular girls. (They are thriving in a long-running musical of the same name.)

Maybe Heathers actually caused a spike

But according to a graph published Quartz – whose analysis of the name’s popularity and decline sparked this week’s news coverage – there was a steep drop in the name’s popularity before the film was released into notoriety. The graph shows a rebound in 1990 to more than 20,000 Heathers being born.

The graph shows a drop in Heather’s popularity before the film’s release, and a spike afterward. Data: US Social Security.

Soon after though, it fell away quickly to neat oblivion.

Quartz’s analysis of US baby-name data went back to 1880 and found that “no name in history has become so popular and then flamed out quite like Heather”.

Quoted in the piece was Laura Wattenberg, “the preeminent expert on US naming trends”. Ms. Wattenberg said: “When fashion is ready for a name, even a tiny spark can make it take off.”

Names just get old

Heather climbed gradually into popularity through the 1950s and ’60s, then took its biggest leap in 1969, a year that featured a popular Disney TV movie called Guns in the Heather.

“A whole generation of Heathers followed,” she said, “at which point Heather became a ‘mom name’ and young parents pulled away.”

It’s this generational shift that more often kills off a name’s popularity.

Jane is also on the wane

Dr Jane Pilcher is associate professor of sociology at the University of Leicester, in the United Kingdom, who researches the link between names, gender and identity.

In an email responding to questions, Dr Pilcher told The New Daily that there are cohort processes at play in naming fashions.

“This explains why, for example, Jane is not a fashionable baby name nowadays, but it was a top-10 name when I was born in the 1960s,” she said.

“Basically, you don’t want to call your baby a name that your own parents, or their peers, are likely to have.”

She said it takes a while, but some older baby names – like Ethel or Albert – gradually come to be more fashionable as the older cohorts who had those names die off.

“So, Jane may come back into fashion in about 30 years or so,” she said.

Naming fashions are also influenced by popular culture, said Dr Pilcher.

Heather Locklear on Melrose Place

Ms Locklear, another Heather no longer on trend. Photo: CBS

In 2016, Harper became a top-10 name for girls in the US following the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, her controversial sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird.

Celebrities such as David and Victoria Beckham and Neil Patrick Harris named their daughters Harper … and a fad was born.

But can popular culture kill off a name? UK mummy-site Channel Mum suggests Stan is on the outer because of the negative social media meaning: Stan is short for stalker fan. The site also suggests Harvey is on the nose since Harvey Weinstein fell from from grace.

But Heather?

Dr Pilcher said: “Generally, floral names for girls are not so fashionable nowadays – with the possible exceptions of Poppy and Daisy.”

But is Heather truly extinct? A report this month in the Irish Examiner said that the low-lying shrub is proving to be a hero plant in the resurrection of bees. So maybe it will cause another buzz after all.

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