The recently published list of popular baby names is testament to the effect media figures have on naming fads. TV stars are – on the whole – valued for their ordinariness, so their names aren't especially weird. Musicians are often at the opposite extreme – names such as Madonna, Dre and Siouxsie are just a bit too distinctive to be widely adopted. But film stars occupy a perfect middle ground: as popular aspirational figures, they loom large in the popular imagination and often adopt names that manage to differentiate them from the wider mass – but not too much.
When I was a kid in the early 70s there was a sprinkling of Clints and Lees (after Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors, I always assumed) – though very few Dustins. Physically impressive types seem to make an impression, not nerdy little runts. On the current list, Keira (no 63 among the girls) is more clear-cut evidence; there's surely no other reference or inspiration than the high-cheekboned Ms Knightley. The way the name Keira has moved up and down the charts is also telling. In 1999 Keira was number 286. Last year it was at 45. The high point was no 33 in 2006, shortly after Pride & Prejudice had made Knightley a major star the autumn before. In 2004, with only Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates of the Caribbean behind Knightley, Keira was making only a small dent on the top 100, sliding in at 92.
Other unquestionably movie-related names in the girls' list are Scarlett (no 26), Sienna (no 56) and – a character rather than an actor – Amelie at no 58. (Shamefully, Brits can't seem to be bothered to remember Audrey Tautou's name.) You have to conclude it's a kind of parental voodoo invocation, performed in the hope serious beauty will pass on to the newborn sprog. You also suspect the same is true, in a retro style, of Ava (no 12).
It's a little less obvious in the boys' list. Leo is at no 40, having maintained a mid-40s to mid-50s place throughout the decade. At 77, Hayden is – maybe – related to Hayden Christensen's role as Anakin Skywalker in the second Star Wars trilogy. (Much as I loathe Phantom, Clones and Sith, I'd love for Anakin itself to get on the list.) Ashton, at 69, is presumably nosing up the charts as Kutcher becomes an icon for the Twitter generation. Again, a certain kind of modish appearance seems important.
The main reason, though, is that each of these figures occupies a place in that nebulous meeting-ground between cult and mass appeal. However modern we feel, the naming of children still belongs to an ancient wish to confer attributes. People want their kids to be beautiful, clever and popular, and naming plays its role in that. When dealing with the same issue, what did I do? Well, my six-month-old daughter is called Lucy not because of the movies, but at least partly because of a book. Ever since I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, I've always thought of Lucy Pevensie as a feisty little thing, a properly admirable character.