Thanks to Felecia for suggesting our Baby Name of the Day.
Before the baby name River was ever given to a child it was – obviously – a word with Latin origins.
Riparius referred to a riverbank; it was corrupted into Old French as riviere, and came to refer to the river as well as the edge. The Normans brought the word to England, where it became rivere and eventually the word we know today. Coastal areas with like the Riviera hint at the word’s original meaning.
THE RUBICON AND THE JORDAN
Cultural references to rivers abound.
You can be sent down the river (to prison) or experience peace like a river (like the hymn).
When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon (river), it changed the course of the world. We personify rivers, like the Ol’ Man of the Mississippi. Countless early Christians were baptized in the Jordan River – including Jesus himself.
So rivers symbolize journeys and boundaries. They give life and drive commerce. Individual rivers have shaped the world as we know it.
But how did it become a given name?
A handful of children received the baby name River in the 1970s.
It was a counterculture kind of name, along with Summer and Rain, Liberty and Freedom. After all, the Phoenix family chose several of those names for their children … along with River.
Born in 1970, River Phoenix became a star in 1986’s Stand by Me. By the time he passed away in 1993, he’d already earned an Oscar nomination and a shelf of awards, particularly for his performances in Running On Empty and My Own Private Idaho.
BY THE NUMBERS
The actor’s death in 1993 changed everything.
Six boys received the baby name River in 1971. A decade later, six boys were named River in 1981. The name would’ve felt extreme. Even as Phoenix’s career flourished, only a handful of parents considered the name.
And then came Phoenix’s tragic death. In 1992, 7 girls and 37 boys were named River. In 1993, 12 girls and 54 boys received the name.
And then, in 1994? 12 girls and 141 boys, enough for the baby name River to debut at #927 on the US popularity charts.
While River Phoenix gets credit for the name’s surge in popularity, it wasn’t just the actor.
A few nature – or nature-adjacent – names have always ranked in the Top 1000. We’ve always named our daughters after flowers and gemstones – think Ruby and Rose, Lily and Pearl.
But the 1990s were also the decade that Sage caught on for boys and girls alike; that Rowan debuted for boys and Aurora rose for girls.
River’s r-ending helped sort the name into the boys’ category. After all, Christopher, Tyler, and Connor were favorites in the era.
By 1998, the baby name River reached #496.
TAM AND SONG
Then science fiction on the small screen gave us two high-profile female Rivers.
First came Firely, Joss Whedon’s space Western. It debuted in 2002, lasting just a single season – but becoming a cult favorite, and eventually becoming the 2005 movie Serenity. The cast included girl genius/deadly assassin River Tam.
In 2008, we met the mysterious Dr. River Song on Doctor Who. It’s tough to explain Song without, as she would say, “Spoilers!” Let’s just say this: she’s a critical part of the story line for every major character in her part of the series, in almost unbelievable ways.
By 2009, the baby name River debuted in the girls’ Top 1000 at #955.
In September of 2020, we learned that Joaquin Phoenix – younger brother to River – and fiancee Rooney Mara had welcomed a son.
The son’s name? River.
While they’re not the first high profile couple to choose the name for a child, no question it’s the most significant.
FUTURE TOP 100 NAME
The name succeeds for so many reasons. The middle ‘v’ is powerfully stylish. And the mix of nature name appeal and deeper meaning is exactly right for our times.
As of 2019, the name ranked #214 for girls and #168 for boys – striking distance of the Top 100.
It’s easy to imagine parents from so many walks of life embracing this name for a child.
Would you consider the baby name River for a son or a daughter?
First published on June 14, 2014, this post was revised substantially and re-published on September 29, 2020.