Can the undead revive an almost-dead name?
With Johnny Depp starring as vampire Barnabas Collins in the film of the cult TV show “Dark Shadows,” we're about to find out.
Barnabas is the Greek form of an Aramaic name meaning “son of consolation.” Early Christian convert St. Barnabas helped the Apostle Paul spread the faith in the first century.
Medieval England dedicated 13 churches to St. Barnabas. His name became “Barnaby” in everyday English.
Since 1327, English babies have been named Barnaby, though not many. By 1800, Barnaby was thought old-fashioned.
Charles Dickens' novel “Barnaby Rudge,” written in 1841, was set in the 1780s. Barnaby Rudge is a simple-minded country villager. Dickens undoubtedly chose his name for its outdated rural image.
When Puritans began naming children directly from the Bible around 1600, Barnabas itself became fashionable. Barney, short for both Barnaby and Barnabas, also was starting to be used independently.
In 1790, the first United States census listed 286 heads of household as Barnabas, along with 23 Barnabys and 70 Barneys. Most Barnabases lived in New England. So Barnabas was a good choice for the “Dark Shadows” vampire, living in Maine around 1752.
In the 1800s, Barney overtook the full forms. In the 1850 census, 1,213 men were called Barnabas or Barnabus, 46 were Barnaby and 4,953 were Barney.
Barney's boom had ethnic influences. In Ireland, Barney was a substitute for the ancient Irish name Brian after English rulers discouraged Gaelic names. In 1870, 28 percent of the Barneys living in the United States were born in Ireland; less than five percent of the whole population was born there.
Around 1890, Barney became popular with Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland, who adopted it as an English equivalent for Hebrew names like Baruch.
Since 1880, neither Barnabas nor Barnaby have been among the top 1,000 names for boys on Social Security's yearly baby name lists.
Barney peaked at 202nd in 1887, and slowly fell over the next 30 years. Its drop-off accelerated when Billy DeBeck created comic strip “Barney Google” in 1919. Hapless gambler Google inspired a hit 1920s song about his “goo, goo, googly eyes.”
This didn't inspire parents to name babies Barney. It left the top 1,000 in 1977.
Police captain “Barney Miller” on the 1975-1982 sitcom of the same name didn't revive Barney, perhaps because he reinforced its ethnic Jewish image.
In 1992, Barney took another hit when a purple dinosaur became famous on the children's show “Barney and Friends.” Though kids loved Barney, many older viewers found him sickeningly sweet.
Since 2005, the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” has featured Barney Stinson, an arrogant womanizer played by Neil Patrick Harris. Though the character's extremely funny, his image also doesn't do the name Barney any favors.
Barnaby never completely disappeared, and even increased while detective series “Barnaby Jones” aired between 1973 and 1980. The previous decade averaged six newborn Barnabys a year, while during the show it was 15. That only raised Barnaby from “extremely rare” to “very rare,” and it dropped back again in 1981.
Barnabas Collins originally occupied his coffin on “Dark Shadows” from 1967 to 1971. He was hugely popular with baby boomer teens. During the boom itself, between 1946 and 1964, there never were more than five American boys named Barnabas in any one year. Since “Dark Shadows,” usually between six and 10 have appeared annually.
In 2010, six Barneys, seven Barnabys, and nine Barnabases were born in the United States. With “Twilight” vampires inspiring baby names, will Depp's fans boost Barnabas up the baby name charts? Or will the film's campiness finally drive a stake through its heart?