Remember Jacy Farrow in “The Last Picture Show”? Or Maddie Hayes in the private eye comedy “Moonlighting”?
Cybill Shepherd, famed for both roles, turns 64 today.
Sybil is from the Greek “sibulla,” meaning “prophetess.” Ancient Greek Sibyls answered questions about the future while possessed by the gods.
The oracles claimed the Sibyls predicted Christ’s ministry and resurrection. Medieval priests accepted Sybil as a baptismal name, even though there was no saint by that name. In 1107, English King Henry I’s daughter Sybilla became Queen of Scotland when she married Alexander I.
In English poll tax records for 1380, Sybil ranked 21st. Those with the surnames Sibley and Sibson are descendants of Sybils.
English Protestants disliked Sybil’s pagan connection. By 1700 Sybil was rare.
Sybil revived in the United States around 1800 when the fashion for classical Greece led to towns named Athens and Sparta. In 1850, there were 1,458 Sybils in America but only 171 in Britain.
Sybil revived in England because of Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 novel “Sybil,” where wealthy Charles Egremont loves kind, innocent Sybil, daughter of a labor leader. By 1900, Sybil was twice as common in Britain as America.
The name rose again with Oscar Wilde’s 1891 “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” In that gothic tale, narcissistic Dorian remains young and handsome while his portrait ages. Beautiful actress Sibyl Vane commits suicide when Dorian rejects her.
In Social Security’s yearly name lists, both Sybil and Sibyl peak in 1919, just after three silent film versions of “Dorian Gray” were released. Combining spellings, Sybil ranked 219th.
After 1919 the name declined. Sibyl left the top 1,000 in 1930; Sybil followed in 1967.
Cybill Shepherd’s spelling honors grandfather Cy and father Bill. In 1971, fashion model Cybill became famous when she was cast as Jacy Farrow in “The Last Picture Show.”
Though the name Sybil is still rare, its ups and downs since then mostly follow Shepherd’s career. The first year in which more than five girls were given the spelling Cybill was 1972. The following year, there were 31 Cybills, the most ever, and the various spellings of Sybil in all almost doubled to 200.
In 1973, Flora Rheta Schreiber’s book “Sybil,” the story of a woman with 16 personalities, became a best-seller. Sally Field won an Emmy playing Sybil in a 1976 television movie. The book helped the name at first. The 211 Sybils, Sibyls and Cybils born in 1975 were the most in decades. However, the link with mental illness and continuing controversy about the story have probably hurt the name since.
In 1985, only 56 Sybils were born. Then Shepherd resurrected her acting career in “Moonlighting.” The tale of fashion model Maddie being forced into running the agency of a wisecracking private detective, played by Bruce Willis, to avoid bankruptcy was a big hit.
In 1986, there were 95 Sybils born. After “Moonlighting” folded in 1989, the name fell until 1995 when Shepherd’s sitcom “Cybill,” where she played twice-divorced actress Cybill Sheridan, began. More than 35 baby Sybils in any spelling arrived in 1997, the year before the sitcom was canceled.
In 2011, Sybil became part of a hugely fashionable show when “Downton Abbey” began airing on PBS. Fans know Sybil Crawley, third daughter of the Earl of Grantham, fell in love with the family’s Irish chauffeur in Season 2. She died in the third season after giving birth to a daughter — also named Sybil.
So far Downton Abbey has barely affected Sybil. Just 29 babies got the name in the two years after the show hit American airwaves.
When 2013’s figures come out in May, will Lady Sybil’s tragic death and baby Sybil’s fame have caused a boom for the name? Only the ancient Greek Sibyls could prophesy that for sure.