Before there was Brooklyn, this place name topped the charts.
Our 80s Baby Name of the Day is Brittany.
Brittany has oodles of history.
Just not as a given name.
Sometime around the fifth century, the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain and a a group of Celts were displaced, crossing the channel into modern-day France. They were sometimes called Britons, and their land was known as Brittania in Latin. It referred to the country now known as Great Britain, as well as the area the refugees inhabited, sometimes known as Lesser Britain – eventually Bretagne in French, re-translated to Brittany in English.
Any place name can potentially leap to the nursery, but Brittany is an especially interesting one. It was an independent kingdom, then a powerful duchy, before becoming part of France. Rennes was a major city throughout Brittany’s history and is the capital today. Nantes was another major urban center, but today it is considered part of another province. The flag pictured in this post is the Gwenn-ha-du – the white and black – designed as Brittany’s flag in the 1920s, though it is based on a coat of arms used by the Dukes of Brittany for centuries.
If Gwenn-ha-du doesn’t give it away, Breton remains a distinct Celtic language, though not one widely spoken.
So how did parents come to embrace the place as a name?
My first guess was that it was all about sound. Brenda was a Top 20 choice for girls in the 1960s, and boys’ names Brett and Brent were headed for the Top 100. John Jakes’ bestseller-turned-miniseries North and South gave the name Brett to a Southern belle.
But I suspect that credit for Brittany’s boom goes to a little-remembered actress. Suzanne Cupito had a good run as a child star, transitioned into modeling, and then changed her name and re-launched herself as a television starlet. At the very end of the 1970s, Cupito became known as Morgan Brittany. She played a bad girl on Dallas, and thanks to her striking resemblance to screen legend Vivien Leigh, she played the actress in two different biopics. Her career chugged along through the 1980s and into the 1990s, but she’s not a household name today.
Her career trajectory tracks very closely with the rise of Brittany as a girls’ name in the US.
By the late 1980s, Brittany was in wider use. She was the name of one of the children on thirtysomething – Elliot and Nancy’s daughter, little sister to Ethan. Animated favorites Alvin and the Chipmunks picked up a trio of female counterparts, including Brittany.
Respelling was already underway. Brittany invites a three-syllable pronunciation. Britney seems like the slimmed down, two-syllable version.
Just when Brittany was established as a preppy possibility for girls, something like Kimberly or Mackenzie, along came Britney Spears. Love her or hate her, her rise was meteoric and her success has been the stuff of pop icons. She’s scored a Grammy, more than one MTV Video Music Award, and more headlines than anyone can count, for better and for worse.
Ms. Spears may be a household name, but her success has pushed her name out of use. Even though we’re still in love with the Br- sound – think of Brianna, Brielle, Brinley, and many more from the US Top 1000, both spellings are fading today. Brittany ranked #407, while Britney was juts #893. Even Brenda came in at #538.
Brittany remains as valid a place name as any, but today she’s so closely associated with the pop star that many parents are looking elsewhere.