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Of Travolta and Machiavelli

September 26, 2019 laurawattenberg 1 Comment

Of Travolta and Machiavelli

September 26, 2019 LauraWattenberg 1 Comment
Image of John Travolta and  Niccolò Machiavelli
John Travolta and Niccolò Machiavelli

Surnames are baby names. From the days of Warren and Shirley to Todd and Tracy to Hunter and Mackenzie, surname crossovers have been a staple of American baby naming. British Isles surnames, that is. The hundreds of popular crossovers all come from English and Celtic stock. Parents won’t venture further culturally afield without a special reason.

Here are the stories of five special reasons. At these five moments in culture, American parents turned Italian surnames into baby names for their sons. They were tributes and style statements, and now each is a tiny time capsule.

The year listed with each name represents its first appearance in official US baby name statistics, meaning the names were given to five or more boys in a single year.

Sinatra, 1958
In 1958, Frank Sinatra was at his iconic peak. Ol’ Blue Eyes had just sung “The Lady is a Tramp” to Rita Hayworth onscreen and won a Golden Globe. He was putting out albums of timeless hits twice a year, including ’58’s Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, which was named Album of the Year at the first-ever Grammy Awards. Sinatra’s whole style and attitude helped define the era. Overlooked among all the accolades is one of the sincerest possible tributes to a star. Six boys were named Sinatra in 1958.

Travolta, 1978
Fast forward twenty years. Another Italian-American takes movie musicals by storm, this time with a whole different kind of swagger. The disco epic Saturday Night Fever established John Travolta as the king of the dance floor. His trademark moves and white polyester suit struck a chord with audiences in a way that belied the film’s dark, despairing story. Six months later, another star turn in Grease made the year fully Travolta’s, with 11 baby namesakes to prove it.

Capone, 1996
Gangster Al Capone reigned as America’s most notorious crime boss in the 1920s and ’30s. It wasn’t until decades later that Public Enemy No. 1 inspired baby names. The trigger was a wave of “Mafioso rap” in the 1990s East Coast hip-hop scene. Themes, fashions and, yes, names associated with famous gangsters were woven into music and stage personas. For a prime example from the time, producer Tone Capone worked with rapper Scarface on the album The Untouchable. Baby names naturally followed.

Machiavelli, 2013
Niccolò Machiavelli wrote his political treatise The Prince in 1513. Its ethics-free focus on power and deception proved so influential that the author’s surname became synonymous with ruthless scheming. On the treatise’s 500th anniversary, his surname became a baby name, too. If that seems like an unlikely anniversary celebration, the key may lie once again in ’90s hip-hop. In 1997, rapper Tupac Shakur’s final album was released posthumously under the stage name “Makaveli.” (Shakur had read The Prince in prison, and adopted the name in tribute.) Makaveli has appeared in the name stats on and off ever since, and the little anniversary Machiavellis of 2013 could be part of this continuing legacy.

Rizzo, 2016
What image does this surname bring to mind? Perhaps the tough-talking “Pink Ladies” leader Rizzo from the musical Grease, or the down-and-out hustler Ratso Rizzo of the film Midnight Cowboy? If so, put those images aside. This name commemorates a sports miracle. In 2016, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. First baseman Anthony Rizzo was a big part of that story, winning a Silver Slugger award for his offense and a Golden Glove for his defense, and inspiring the first baby Rizzos.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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1 Comment

  • Nancy September 30, 2019 at 1:26 pm

    The Jewish surname Cohen is another 21st-century baby-name phenomenon (among non-Jews). The spark appears to have been the Seth Cohen character on “The OC” who was referred to simply as Cohen.

    There’s been a backlash against the backlash over this name, which has very specific meanings to Jews.

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