Humor writer M. Asher Cantrell’s new book is called The Book of Word Records: A Look at Some of the Strangest, Shortest, Longest, and Overall Most Remarkable Words in the English Language, and if that doesn’t set a word record of its own for longest book title, it’s only because he didn’t want to get involved too deep and lose his edge, like Steven Seagal did in Out for Justice with a maniacal crook or in Steven Seagal’s real life with Twinkies. And speaking of unrealistic ideas from Hollywood, he kindly shared a selection with us on the most inordinately common film character names.
It sure seems like movies are kind of samey these days. The blockbuster formula doesn’t allow many deviations from the norm, unfortunately. As if it weren’t enough that the actors and plots in movies were interchangeable, it turns out that the character names are as well. Some names just keep turning up in movies over and over again.
Does Hollywood not trust us with more unusual names, or are we just secretly more receptive to characters who are called familiar things and they know that? Whatever the reason, we might as well get used to seeing more and more characters with names like these.
The Numbers, a box office analysis website, took their database of 80,000 movie credits and picked out the most commonly recurring character names, which we’re going to compare to the popularity of real-life baby names over the last 100 years (as determined by the U.S. Social Security Administration), just to see how well Hollywood’s doing.
It’s been pretty well established that male characters make up the bulk of, well, basically everything in entertainment, despite only being 50 percent of the population. Four of the following five are more popular than any female name, which is kind of crazy.
We’ll put that whole debate to bed for right now, though. What’s more shocking is that none of these names are Frodo. That was a character’s name in at least four movies we can think of. Is… is that not a lot?
Bringing up the rear (although still extremely popular), and the only male name to not surpass every single female name in terms of popularity, is Frank. You’ve seen it in movies like The Departed (Frank Costello), The Punisher movies (Frank Castle), Donnie Darko (Frank the Bunny), and The Transporter series (Frank Martin).
To be frank (hah), Frank hasn’t even been in the top five of actual baby names at any point in the last 100 years, according to the Social Security Administration. It hasn’t even been in the top ten since 1922. Frankly (get it?), we find it really weird that Hollywood keeps going back to it, especially since it’s currently around 300th in real-life popularity.
Next up is a name that’s synonymous with a toilet, and we aren’t just saying that because we hate a couple of people with the name. You can find Johns in The Terminator series (John Connor), the Die Hard series (John McClane), every Sherlock Holmes adaptation (John Watson), and too many John Smiths to ever count.
Unlike Frank, John actually has been very popular among real people. It was number one from 1912 to 1923. After that, it still stayed in the top ten until 1986, and even dipped back into it in 1991. In the last few years it’s hovered around number twenty-five, which makes it the only male name on this list that’s actually still popular.
Well, if we can get George and Ringo in here we’ll have a whole band. The Beach Boys, or The Monkees, or something. One of those. Anyway, Paul is used in Misery (Paul Sheldon), American Psycho (Paul Allen), Zodiac (Paul Avery), and the alien in the self-titled movie Paul (the one voiced by Seth Rogen). Okay, so those are mostly violent movies based on books, but hey,
Paul has never been in the top ten baby names, according to the SSA, but it was pretty steadily popular in the mid-teens until the ’70s. Since then, it has slowly dropped to its current ranking, close to number 200. So it’s less popular than John as a baby name, but more popular as a movie name (presumably due to minor characters using it more than main ones, since most of the ones we found were small characters). So, uh, way to take a step backwards, Hollywood.
To be fair to this one, Sam can be both a male and female name, which may be bumping it up in the rankings a little, but it’s quite popular regardless. You can find Sams in the Transformers movies (Sam Witwicky), Ghost (Sam Wheat), The Maltese Falcon (Sam Spade), and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Sam Gamgee—wait, all the hobbits weren’t called Frodo?).
Sam has never even been close to the most popular name, starting out at number sixty-three in the early twentieth century and steadily falling (with a few very small rises) to nearly 500th place today. Where are we going with this, Hollywood? Are we going to see a rash of movie characters named Billingham?
Well, now that we’re here, it’s not much of a surprise, is it? There’s probably a character named Jack in every movie ever. If a character isn’t given a name, assume it’s Jack and you’ll look like a psychic. Captain Jack Sparrow, Jack Skellington, Jack Ryan, and, of course, Jack Torrance from The Shining are just a few of the trillions of Jacks in cinema.
Of all the names so far, Jack has had the most consistent popularity. Starting with the 1900s, Jack ranked in the mid-to-high twenties, dropping down into the teens in the 1930s. It then dropped through the 1960s to the 1990s, reaching a low of 175th place, but it’s now come back into favor and hangs on at 45th.
In the realm of movies, we like to think it’s a title instead of a name, and they only give it to babies with appropriately chiseled jaws and manly physiques.
So how about the ladies, then? We can’t have this be a big sausage festival, after all. Sometimes there’s just too much sausage and you have to eat it, by which we mean we didn’t understand what a “sausage fest” was and now we have all this food and we’re not quite sure what to do with it. We could give it to the homeless, but that sounds like way more effort than just eating it ourselves. Slowly. While crying.
Anyway, despite what you might believe from hearing other people talk, not all female characters in movies are just the names of the actresses playing them. For example, in The Avengers, she’s Black Widow, not just “Scarlett Johansson in that hot leather suit.” In fact, we’ve heard rumors that some movies occasionally have females playing actual roles and not just flitting around in their underwear or whatever, but that’s probably just a myth.
A name most famous for the Alice in Wonderland series, which in turn inspired the most acid-trippy of psychedelic songs of the ’60s. Who says the hippies never contributed anything worthwhile? You can find Alice all over the place, from the Resident Evil series (whose protagonist is apparently just “Alice”), the Twilight series (Alice Cullen), The Brady Bunch franchise (Alice Nelson), and even the Friday the 13th movies (the “final girl” from the first film, Alice Hardy).
Alice was an extremely popular name in the early years of the twentieth century, usually in the top ten, but then fell off until it saw a major turnaround in 1999, starting at 424th place and rapidly making its way to 142nd place as of 2011 (the most recent year available), making it the first name so far on this list that’s actually becoming significantly more popular instead of less. We’re kind of thinking this one may all be on Stephenie Meyer.
Considering that Claire derives from the Latin clarus, which means famous, maybe it’s fate that it’s the fourth most popular movie name. Or maybe it’s just a nice name and people like it, whichever. Claire has been used in movies like The Breakfast Club (Claire Standish), Elizabethtown (Claire Colburn), the Resident Evil movies again (Claire Redfield), and Where the Wild Things Are (just Claire).
Unlike Alice, Claire started out as a less popular name, ranking in the 200s, until the 1920s, when it saw a surge of use (probably due to flapper icon Clara Bow). Afterward, it sank down into the 500s before seeing another resurgence in the 1980s, which has continued to the present day, leaving it currently at number fifty, the most popular it’s ever been. We’re starting to think Hollywood has a better knack for girls’ names than names of boys.
It’s not just Charlie Brown’s “friend” Lucy (who does have a last name-—Van Pelt—if you’ve ever wondered) who ended up with this name. It’s surprisingly popular in the entertainment world, popping up in The Chronicles of Narnia series (Lucy Pevensie), all the various iterations of Dracula (Lucy Westenra/Weston/etc.), 50 First Dates (Lucy Whitmore), and Across the Universe (just Lucy).
Lucy was fairly popular in the early twentieth century, hovering around number seventy-five. After that, however, it perpetually dropped like a rock until 1978, where it turned around from a low of 588 and has been trending upward ever since, right back to around number seventy-five again, as it happens. Hollywood, are you . . . doing something right? This is quite shocking.
The first name of every Catholic girl you’ve ever met (it may have something to do with that one that’s in all their art?) is, naturally, extremely popular in movies. You can find women named Mary in the Spider-Man movies (Mary Jane Watson), The Godfather Part III (Mary Corleone, disastrously played by Sofia Coppola), There’s Something About Mary (duh), and Mary Poppins
Mary is, by far, the most popular name for real-life babies on this list, male or female. For nearly sixty freaking years it was the most popular girl’s name, as in it was number one for basically that entire time (very occasionally dropping into the number two spot). It dropped a little afterward, into the twenties and thirties in the 1970s and ’80s, before hitting the fifties in the 90s. Bummer. Since 2000, though, something weird has happened and the bottom has dropped out, taking it down to 112th place. Still, that’s pretty recent movement, so we’ll give Hollywood a pass and say they got another one right.
So here we are, the most popular female name in moviedom, and it’s also the name of every first grade teacher ever (which is actually evidence of a mass conspiracy that proves we all have implanted memories, but we’ll leave that for now). If you want to find Sarahs in popular movies, look no further than The Terminator series again (Sarah Connor), Labyrinth (Sarah Williams), The Prestige (Sarah Borden), and Philadelphia (Sarah Beckett).
Unlike most of the other names on this list, Sarah’s popularity has remained pretty steady for the last hundred years, starting in the forties in the 1900s and dropping very slowly to a low of 119 in 1959. It then jumped into the top ten between 1978 and 2002 before declining back to number 39 as of 2011, and most of that drop has only occurred since 2007.
Hollywood, you are officially much wiser about choosing female names than male ones. Once we get some more Jacobs, Michaels, and Christophers in the mix, we can talk again. But you’re not allowed to look us in the eye because you guys have mind powers and stuff. Deal?
Learn more intriguing lexicographical facts in Ashe’s new release, The Book of Word Records.
Get more weird facts in History’s Most Over-the-Top Funerals and then enjoy some practical lessons about movies and life in 10 Weird Questions with Film Critic Scott Weinberg.