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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

t verm September 3, 2013 at 7:26 PM

corrosiveabuser,

I wonder, what do weirdo sociopaths use for an alias these days?

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corrosiveabuser July 22, 2013 at 3:19 AM

I am not out to offend anyone, but, my brothers son in-law recently had a baby with his girlfriend and decided on the name Savannah/Savanna, when I pointed out that it’s quite a popular alias for porn actresses they weren’t impressed. My reply, “Well it doesn’t bother me, if it doesn’t bother you, I’m just pointing out a fact.” – somehow I don’t think I’ll be invited to the christening now, never mind, saves me having to come up with an excuse later on.

Take care
-One intelligent being, cannot own another.

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Panya July 13, 2013 at 5:54 PM

Savannah was going to be my name, but an acquaintance of my mother’s used it for her own daughter first. I was born in 1981. My mom says she can’t remember where she first heard it.

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Katie July 9, 2013 at 11:51 PM

Love this name- Savi or Savvy is such a cute, wearable nickname! Was high on my list before I got married, wasn’t my husband’s style, so we have a dog named Savi!

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Waltzing More Than Matilda July 4, 2013 at 5:18 AM

Yes my first thought is of the Spelling soap – I think of Savannah, Georgia and Peyton as all being popularised by the show. Savannah only began charting in Australia in the 1990s, making me suspect the TV show was the impetus.

I’ve never heard of the movie; it sounds pretty ghastly and a fairly worrying plot-line for little girls to watch: “If you feel neglected by your parents, why not look for affection from two strange men? Who are criminals!”

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Blue Juniper July 4, 2013 at 4:52 AM

Savannah was one of my teenage crush names in the 90′s :)

For me, I fell in love with it watching the Aaron Spelling show ‘Savannah’, set in the town of Savannah, Georgia. The three main female characters were called Lane, Peyton and Reese, and I still have a soft spot for all three of those names too :)

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Kimberly July 3, 2013 at 2:01 PM

I wonder if Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil had anything to do with the name’s popularity. It was on he NYT bestseller list in 1994. Great book about Savannah!

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C in DC July 3, 2013 at 10:46 AM

I also think of it as a nature name, Savannah, a sister to Sierra or Sienna, from savanna, grasslands.

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The Mrs. July 3, 2013 at 1:11 AM

I think Jimmy Buffet also named his daughter Savannah… somewhere in the gray-matter, I vaguely remember them authoring a children’s book, too.

It felt very fresh after a generation of Susans and Suzannas.

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appellationmountain July 3, 2013 at 7:03 AM

You’re right, The Mrs.! In fact, she was born in 1979, making her one of the first Savannahs of the new wave. And their book came out in 1988, so definitely could have been a contributing factor to the name’s rise.

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Megan M. July 2, 2013 at 7:33 PM

I like Savannah and it’s a perfect fit with our naming style if we were to have another girl, but the hubs says no. Sigh.

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Virginia July 2, 2013 at 4:19 PM

My mom suggested I use Savannah to honor her mother Anna. I like Savannah but not quite enough to use it.

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