In the 1970s and 80s, the world conspired to launch a chart-topping name.
Thanks to Liv for suggesting Olivia as our Baby Name of the Day.
Blame it on mournful ballads, Xanadu, leg warmers, and the Australian import who made all of the above cooler than cool back in the day.
Or not. Olivia Newton-John’s path to fame tracks nicely with the rise of her given name, but she isn’t the only reason this one caught on.
Olivia has ranked in the US Top 1000 every year since the stats were first collected in 1880. She was the textbook definition of a normal name, the kind of name every parent wants now. Familiar, but not common. Rooted in history, but not tied to an individual figure. Classic, but never boring.
Olivia de Havilland played Melanie in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, but it wasn’t her only role. She scored two Best Actress Oscars in the 1940s, and made a string of successful films. Miss de Havilland’s professional success failed to inspire parents. Her name remained in the 300s, about where it had been for decades.
By the 1960s, the name seemed headed towards obscurity, slipping into the 500s. Not even the lovely Olivia Hussey’s performance as Juliet in the movie version of Shakespeare’s legendary play made a difference.
In 1971, Olivia ranked #543. Then two things happened:
- First, Olivia Newton-John left Australia after winning a talent competition, and recorded her first solo album. It would be 1974 before she scored her first hit with “I Honestly Love You” and not until 1978 that she became a movie star, thanks to her performance as Sandy in Grease. Then came Xanadu and her album Physical and Miss N-J was everywhere in the early 80s.
- Then there’s The Waltons, that ever-so-wholesome Depression-era family. Mrs. Walton’s given name was Olivia. The show debuted in December 1971 with a Christmas special, and became a regular series the next September.
The combined effect of the singer and the show pushed Olivia to #232 by 1975.
Doubtless parents felt they’d discovered a hidden gem. The name was coined by none other than William Shakespeare. He used the name for his comedy Twelfth Night.
The Bard may have borrowed the Latin oliva – the source of our word olive – to create her name. Olive branches have been symbols of peace for centuries. Or maybe he was inspired by Oliver, a name already in use. There’s a Saint Oliva, also called Olivia, who lived in the second century, and another from the 800s. Word play in The Twelfth Night suggests it the olive reference was the inspiration.
Other famous Olivias include:
- Alice Walker’s The Color Purple included a character by the name.
- Actress Olivia d’Abo played Karen Arnold, Kev’s hippie chick big sis in The Wonder Years.
- The fictional pig featured in a series of books by Ian Falconer debuted in 2000. Falconer named the porcine heroine after his niece, Olivia.
- Fringe included a character by the name.
- Other actresses include Olivia Wilde and Olivia Williams.
Then there’s the rise of Alivia. Olivia entered the US Top 100 back in 1990, and climbed to the Top Ten quickly. Alivia first appeared in the rankings in 1995. In 2012, she ranked #188. It’s a popular alternative, and with our affection for A names, could go higher still.
Overall, Olivia is solidly established as a favorite choice for girls. With her enchanting sound and many notable bearers, it is easy to understand why parents feel for Olivia. While her charms remain, today the only disadvantage to Olivia is that so many of us have discovered this name.