Savannah: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on July 2, 2013

Savannah Smiles Photo credit: Wikipedia

Along with Chelsea and Brittany, she heralded the rise of place names in our era.

Thanks to Michelle for suggesting Savannah as our Baby Name of the Day.

There’s more than one city called Savannah, but the place that we all think of is in Georgia.  Founded in 1733, it played a pivotal role in both the American Revolution and the Civil War.  A major historic district draws flocks of tourists.

The name’s origins are debated.  Theories include:

  • It comes from the Shawnee tribe, also known as the Savano.
  • The Spanish word sabana means grassland.  In English, the word is savanna, a grassland.  While I’ve long assumed there’s no connection, some suggest that there may be.
  • Lastly, I’ve seen meanings like Southerner, and references to the Algonquin language.

In any case, the Savannah River and the city on its shores has made the name famous.

From the 1880s into the 1920s, Savannah saw some use as a given name, hugging the edges of the Top 1000.  Then she spent decades in obscurity.

The name’s rapid rise in the 1990s puzzled me.  It seemed to mirror the career of Shannon Wilsey, better known as adult film star Savannah.  Wilsey dated actors and musicians in her brief, whirlwind career that ended when she took her own life in 1994.  While mainstream media usually doesn’t take notice of porn stars, I can vividly remember seeing her on a daytime talk show – Donahue, maybe? – around 1991, at the beginning of her brief career.

In 1989, Savannah ranked #206.  By 1995, she’d reached #68.

Were people really naming their baby daughters after porn stars?

Nope.  Not at all.

Instead, parents were naming their children after a movie character from a sweet family flick from 1982.  The film inspired Wilsey’s screen name.

1982 movie Savannah Smiles starred Bridgette Andersen as the young daughter of two crazy-busy parents.  Dad is running for the US Senate.  The couple is so busy that they completely neglect Savannah.  After they leave her to eat her birthday cake with the housekeeper, Savannah conspires to run away.  She ends up in the company of a pair of petty but kind-hearted criminals.  (Did I say sweet?  Maybe I meant saccharine.)  All ends well – the criminals do the right thing, and the parents learn a valuable lesson.

While the movie wasn’t a huge hit, it was warmly received.  Andersen had a good run as a child star in the 1980s.  And Savannah went from unranked in 1981 to #466 in 1983 and #277 in 1984.

Other prominent uses of the name included:

  • Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel The Prince of Tides about a dysfunctional Southern family included a troubled sister called Savannah.  The 1991 movie adaptation was a huge hit, and an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture.
  • In 1992, Terry McMillan gave the name to one of her characters in Waiting to Exhale.  When it was adapted for the big screen in 1995, Whitney Houston played the role of Savannah.

Janice Dickinson gave the name to a daughter in 1994.  Stephen Seagal followed in 1996.  More recently, Marcia Cross welcomed twins named Eden and Savannah.  And Peter Phillips and his wife Autumn welcomed a daughter named Savannah – meaning that the venerable Queen Elizabeth II has a great-granddaughter called Savannah.

Savannah makes for a tremendously pretty name.  After so many years of popularity, she no longer feels fresh.  Instead, she seems like a solidly established choice for a daughter – a place name borrowed from a lovely city, a feminine choice that fits well in 2013.

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