Hayden Christensen goes evil in ‘Revenge of the Sith’ (Lucasfilm)
This year, a surprising baby name appeared for the first time on the Social Security Administration’s annual list of the top 1,000 baby names in the United States. “Anakin” made its chart debut at #957, the name having been bestowed on exactly 218 baby boys in 2014. Granted, Anakin hovers near the bottom of the boys’ list, with nowhere near the popularity of Top-10 names like Jacob, Liam and Noah. But its appearance is noteworthy, because Anakin didn’t exist as a name until George Lucas invented it for Star Wars. Its one and only cultural association is the character Anakin Skywalker, the father of Luke Skywalker and a once promising Jedi knight who became the evil Darth Vader. How did the name of one of pop culture’s most iconic villains (#3 on the AFI list) become an option for hundreds of newborns? The answer says less about parents turning to the Dark Side, and more about how ubiquitous Star Wars has become in American culture.
The name Anakin appears in the earliest draft of the Star Wars screenplay in 1974, when writer-director George Lucas toyed with the idea of calling his lead character Annikin Starkiller, before ultimately deciding on Luke Skywalker. How Lucas arrived at the name is unknown. It was long thought that he named the character for British director Ken Annakin, but Lucas himself denied this when Annakin died in 2009. The English language has no traditional equivalent of the name, though it does resemble the Nordic girls’ name Anniken.
“Anakin” was first mentioned on the big screen in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, when the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke that his father had “ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader.” The reference was fleeting though, and remembered only by devoted Star Wars aficionados. That changed 10 years later, when Lucas announced that he was making the first three “episodes” of Star Wars, which would focus on the early years of Anakin Skywalker (played in the first film by then-8-year-old Jake Lloyd, and in subsequent films by Hayden Christensen). The hype surrounding the Star Wars prequels, which only increased in the years leading up to 1999’s The Phantom Menace, made Anakin a household name.
Liam Neeson, Jake Lloyd, and Ewan McGregor in ‘The Phantom Menace (Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox)
That’s almost certainly why the name started cropping up on the Social Security Administration’s radar in 1995, when the Lucasfilm publicity machine began cranking into full gear. (That’s the year, for example, that Kenner re-launched its Star Wars action figure line.) While the SSA only publishes the 1,000 most popular names, they track every name that was given to five or more babies in a given year. Looking at those records, we can see that the first occurrences of Anakin were in 1995 and 1996, when the name was given to five and six children, respectively. That number jumped to 14 in 1997, when the Star Wars: Special Edition trilogy hit theaters. The year that Phantom Menace opened, more than 100 Anakins were listed in the SSA registry. In other words, the stronger the Star Wars buzz became, the more baby Anakins started appearing.
The number of newborn Anakins dropped below 100 for the next five years, only to shoot up again to 133 in 2005, when Revenge of the Sith — the movie in which Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side — opened in theaters. In the ensuing years, the popularity of the name remained remarkably consistent, hovering around 100 babies a year. In 2014, the number leapt from the previous year’s 143 to a record 218. Given the patterns of past years, this makes perfect sense; with the excitement and significant press surrounding The Force Awakens (in theaters Dec. 18), Star Wars is on everyone’s mind a little more than usual.
It’s no secret that baby name trends are influenced by pop culture. But most parents don’t deliberately set out to name their child after, say, Bella from Twilight, or Rachel and Ross’ baby Emma from Friends (both of those characters affected the baby-name charts). Rather, these names float around in the ether, becoming part of the collective consciousness so that parents-to-be aren’t always sure where they came from.
You really want to name your kid after this guy? Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman from ‘Attack of the Clones’ (Lucasfilm)
As evidence, take a look at some of the online message boards on which the name Anakin is debated. Many of the parents considering the name Anakin write that they have little or no attachment to Star Wars. “I really love the sound of the name, but I’m not a huge Star Wars movie buff… Is Anakin a little too starwarsy?” asks a community member on Net Mums. “I’m not a huge Star Wars fan I just really love the name and always wanted to name my son that if I ever had one,” writes a Baby Center user. “This name stays with me and just feels right,” writes an expectant parent on Nameberry, who admits to being “a little hesitant” because of the Star Wars connection. Some community members express horror that parents would consider naming their child after a character who turns evil; others respond with a virtual shrug.
It would seem that by the time these Anakins grow up, the name might be a normal part of our cultural nomenclature — much like “Wendy,” a name created by J.M. Barrie for his book Peter Pan. If so, it won’t be the first name normalized by Star Wars. “Leia” was not a common American moniker before Carrie Fisher played Princess Leia in 1977’s Star Wars. The following year, the name appeared on the SSA’s list for the first time, coming in at #911. What’s even more interesting is that the name Leia has seen a dramatic spike in popularity over the past decade; it’s currently #509, given to more than 600 baby girls last year. For generations who grew up with the original Star Wars movies, Leia is a name like any other. And for future generations, Anakin is likely to be the same.
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