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Isis: The Death of a Name


I’ve known ever since starting this blog that I would have to write this post.  Ultimately what’s kept me from writing this sooner was the desire to assess damage in the 2015 data.  That set was released last Friday, and while I anticipated the exit of Isis from the American top 1000 I do not know that I anticipated the great degree to which she fell from popularity.

Though only bestowed upon people in a modern context, Isis is one of the oldest names in the lexicon.  She was an Ancient Egyptian goddess, but she came to be worshiped throughout the Greco-Roman world.  There were cults of Isis as far north as modern-day London!

As far as I can tell, modern usage as a given name only really started in the 20th century.  The derived names Isidore, Isidora, and Isadora, all meaning “gift of Isis,” are more documented through time.  There were several saints with the first two names, and Isadora Duncan was the name of a famous turn-of-the-century dancer.  Isidora was apparently also a popular name in Chile about 10 years ago.  Isis herself only begins to show up regularly in the SSA data around 1960, and only debuted as a top 1000 in 1994.  Until recently, usage was fairly stable at around 500 babies born with the name per year.

Then events took a turn for the worse.  A terror organization, at one point called “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” declared aworldwide caliphatein 2014.  This gang took advantage of a volatile situation after years of conflict and the Syrian Civil War and began to siege and control cities.  The result?  Genocide and destruction.  As of October, close to 20,000 people had been killed in Iraq alone.  Not to mention, thousands of women and children from minority religions enslaved for sex. 

Naturally, the acronym for this group was “ISIS.”  However, when they changed names and acronyms several times (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] and later just Islamic State [IS]), the media clung to the name ISIS.  My only guess for this is that maybe human names are easier for audiences to remember than some other random diminutive.  Unfortunately, that has serious consequences for anyone who actually has the name.

Over the past couple of years, a number of reports have surfaced about children named Isis being bullied (like this one) or businesses being forced to change their name.  It’s become such a problem now that there’s even a petition to force the media to call the organization ISIL instead.  Indeed very recently a Muslim high school student, Bayan Zehlif, discovered that her yearbook photo appeared with the name Isis.  It turned out that the school actually has a student with the name and that the name was switched, but Ms. Zehlif believes the swap was an intentional act of racism.  For what it’s worth, I agree with her. 

Regarding the future of the baby name, this environment almost certainly means death.  After the new SSA data that was released May 6, one name researcher found that Isis experienced a 70.5% drop in popularity between 2014 and 2015 – potentially the biggest decline for a baby name ever.  There are a few other names in the past 125 years that have declined as much, but most of those were only popular for a year or two; so-called “flash-in-the-pans.”  The only other name that is considered to have been injured as badly as Isis was Hilary back in the 1990s – you can read more about that here.  Only time will tell if usage of the name Isis will cease, decline and stabilize, or eventually recover.  

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