We talk a lot about celebrity-inspired baby names, but relationship between fame and names isn’t always straightforward. The influences can run both ways and take years to play out. In fact, two of today’s “brand new” girls’ names, Murphy and Ripley, were actually born in Hollywood in the 1980s. It just took a few decades for parents to be ready.
Meet the Names
The names Murphy and Ripley have a lot in common. At the most basic level, both are six-letter, two-syllable surnames ending in -y. Both have some history as male given names, though Ripley has historically been much rarer. But what really sets the pair of names apart is how they first came into regular use for girls: sparked by bold, groundbreaking fictional characters of the same era.
The sitcom Murphy Brown starred Candice Bergen as a tough, pioneering female tv journalist. The series debuted in 1988 and ran for 10 seasons, earning a pile of awards and occasional controversy. Notably, when the character Murphy had a child as a single mother, Vice President Dan Quayle attacked the plotline as “mocking the importance of fathers.”
Warrant officer Ellen Ripley battled extraterrestrial monsters in the Alien film series. She was commonly referred to by surname only. As embodied by Sigourney Weaver, Ripley is one of the most iconic female action heroes in film history. The first Alien film came out in 1979, but it was the 1986 and 1992 sequels that cemented the character’s place in popular culture.
From Screen to Babies
You can see the impact of the two characters on the popularity on the baby names Ripley and Murphy from 1975-2000. Key moments in the media franchises are noted for context.
That could have been the end of the Ripley and Murphy story, but the characters proved resilient. Ripley’s adventures continued in spinoff comics, books and video games, including a 2014 game played from the perspective of Ripley’s daughter Amanda Ripley.
The girl’s name Murphy got a fresh boost at the end of 2014 from the science fiction film Interstellar, which featured a NASA scientist called Murphy “Murph” Cooper. Then in 2018, CBS brought back Candice Bergen for a new revival season of Murphy Brown.
In terms of cultural impact, none of these characters and revivals came close to the ‘80s classics. As baby name influencers, though, they blew the originals out of the water. Over the past decade both names have taken off dramatically. Murphy appeared in the girls’ top-1000 list for the first time in 2020, and Ripley isn’t far behind.
An extension of the popularity graph to the present day tells the tale. The time period of the original graph is in gray.
The Names, The Fame
A celebrity name can only start a baby name trend if parents’ taste is ready for it. Clearly, parents are now ready for girls named Ripley and Murphy in a way that parents of the 1980s weren’t.
The seeds for the new readiness may have been planted by the characters themselves. Today’s parents grew up with Ellen Ripley and Murphy Brown as established parts of the cultural landscape. Whether or not their baby name choices are deliberate homages, they were influenced by the style and culturing positioning that the characters shaped.
On the other hand, Ripley and Murphy also fit the broader fashions of 2020. Ripley is just a letter away from Riley, a hit with three different spellings among America’s top 150 girls’ names. Additional popular names in the Ripley-Murphy vein include Finley, Kinsley, Kennedy, and Harley. When names have fashion on their side, even a modest celebrity boost can make a big impact. So perhaps this is purely a style phenomenon.
Yet would this style of names be in fashion now with if it weren’t for past characters like Ripley and Murphy? Those names were chosen by Hollywood screenwriters, with a purpose. Consider that Murphy was a male name in Candice Bergen’s generation, making the character name a highly improbable choice. The writers were trying to signal that their female character was strong and fearless by making her sound like a man. (It’s a common, ostensibly feminist approach built on a foundation of sexist assumptions). Such choices may have shaped a generation’s impression of what a strong girl’s name sounds like.
This chicken-or-egg question is the essence of celebrity baby naming. Characters and stars are part of their times. Their names shape fashion, and fashion determines how the names are received, now and for generations to come.
I think Murphy suffered from being too closely tied to the character Murphy Brown, a victim of its own success. Parents might have started using it before the cultural impact of the show was understood and backed off when it became too iconic. Murphy Browne laid the ground work for the name to have a good association beyond the surname, it just needed some distance from the association with the character to actually get some use by parents.
I wonder how Murphy has managed to get past the Murphy’s Law association. I have to believe that the TV show’s creators had it firmly in mind when they named their character.