Aging baby boomers won’t want to believe this: Caroline Kennedy turns 55 today.
The name Caroline is a feminine form of Charles. Charles is from a Germanic word meaning “freeborn man.”
The first famous Charles was the king of the Franks crowned “Holy Roman Emperor” by Pope Leo III in 800.
Today we call that Charles “Charlemagne,” French for “Charles the Great.” In medieval records, his name was the Latin “Carolus Magnus.”
Carolina developed from Carolus as a Latin feminine form. Caroline is the French version. By 1650, the French name was popular for princesses in France and Germany.
Caroline was rare in England until it arrived with a German princess. When George of Hanover became King of England in 1714, his daughter-in-law Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737) became Princess of Wales. When her husband became King George II in 1727, she became Queen Caroline.
Babies soon were named after the queen all over Britain and its colonies. By the 1790s, Caroline ranked around 35th for English girls.
It took a royal scandal to really make Caroline boom. George III’s eldest son George, Prince of Wales, illegally married Maria Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic, in 1785. When his father found out, the spendthrift prince was forced to abandon Maria so his father would pay his debts.
The prince agreed to marry another German princess, Caroline of Brunswick, so he could sire a legitimate royal heir.
As with most arranged royal marriages, the prince met Caroline only weeks before their April 1795 wedding. They hated each other. Prince George thought Caroline was ugly, dirty and crude. She thought he was a fat drunkard.
Caroline became pregnant on the honeymoon. Three days after daughter Charlotte was born in January 1796, Prince George wrote a will leaving a fortune to “Maria Fitzherbert, my wife” and bequeathed Caroline one shilling.
After that Caroline and George lived apart. Making the best of a bad situation, Caroline had many male friends. This led to accusations that a boy she’d adopted was really her natural son. She was tried for adultery in 1806.
Caroline was acquitted. In 1814, she moved to Italy.
In 1817, Princess Charlotte died. George negotiated for a divorce, but Caroline refused. When he became King George IV in 1820, she returned to England demanding to be treated as queen.
George reacted by again putting Caroline on trial for adultery. The public took Caroline’s side. More than a million signatures in her favor were presented to Parliament.
Though George gave up on the divorce, he barred Caroline from his coronation in July 1821. When she died less than a month later (probably from cancer), many believed she’d been poisoned. A riot broke out during her funeral procession.
Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic were full of the scandal. Americans, still harboring feelings against George IV from the War of 1812, were even more likely than the English to see Caroline as a persecuted heroine.
Though newborn Carolines increased in Britain, the American boom was even stronger. Caroline was a top 10 name for American girls in the 1820s and 1830s. In the 1850 United States census, there were 122,040 Carolines. In the 1851 British census, there were 99,816 Carolines in a similar-sized population.
Caroline, one of the first names with a celebrity-caused boom, then receded. In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby name lists begin, it ranked 75th.
Caroline continued to fall for the next 75 years. It did spawn its own alternatives. Carrie was popular as a name in its own right in the late 19th century. Around 1900, Carolyn and Carol became independent names. They surpassed Caroline around 1920 and peaked in use, with Carol in the top 10 and Carolyn in the top 20, during the 1940s.
Caroline’s lowest rank was 329th in 1956. It rebounded when the Kennedys entered the White House. The number of newborn Carolines jumped 81 percent between 1960 and 1961, so little Caroline Kennedy inspired lots of namesakes. Caroline Manzo, star of “Real Housewives of New Jersey,” was born in 1961.
Between 1966 and 1974, Caroline held fairly steady at around 225th, just below its Kennedy-era rank. Then it began a new upward curve. Most of this was as a “different but not too different” alternative for its own variants Carolyn and Carol. However, Karen Grassle playing Caroline Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie” between 1974 and 1983 certainly didn’t hurt the name.
After “Little House” ended, the name continued rising, entering the top hundred in 1994. Between 1995 and 1999, the sitcom “Caroline in the City,” with Lea Thompson in the title role, gave Caroline a creative urban image.
Caroline peaked again in 2001 at 62nd nationally. However, Caroline’s recent popularity has been more regional than most other popular names. In its peak year of 2001, Caroline ranked below 100th in California, Nebraska, Michigan and the other Western and Upper Midwestern states. It was 18th in both Massachusetts and South Carolina, and 17th in the District of Columbia. Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Georgia were the only other states where Caroline ranked above 30th.
In 2011, Caroline had dropped back to 37th in Massachusetts, but rose to 15th in South Carolina and 22nd in North Carolina. Maybe that’s because Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit “Sweet Caroline” is a favorite with marching bands at both the University of South Carolina and the University of North Carolina.
At Caroline Kennedy’s 50th birthday party, Diamond revealed that he’d written the song with her in mind. So “Sweet Caroline” Kennedy is still affecting her name’s popularity.