Benson’s back next week.
“Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” starts its 15th season Sept. 25. It’s the longest running prime time television drama still making new episodes.
Detective Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay, is the best-known character on “SVU.” Olivia’s late mother was a college English professor.
That fits, because Olivia is a name created by Shakespeare for his 1599 comedy “Twelfth Night.” Olivia is a beautiful countess courted by Orsino, Duke of Illyria. Orsino sends his pageboy Cesario to call on Olivia. Cesario is really Viola, who’s disguised herself to be close to her crush Orsino.
Olivia falls in love with Cesario and proposes marriage. At play’s end, Viola’s identity is revealed. She marries Orsino, and Olivia marries Sebastian, Viola’s twin.
Many assume Olivia must be an Italian name, partly because “Twelfth Night” is based on an Italian source. But in the Italian play, Shakespeare’s Olivia is named Isabella.
Shakespeare created Olivia, but British author Oliver Goldsmith spread it in his 1766 novel “The Vicar of Wakefield.” Here Rev. Charles Primrose suddenly becomes bankrupt, imperiling the marriage prospects of daughters Olivia and Sophia.
“The Vicar” includes a famous passage about naming. Primrose complains he wanted to name a daughter after wealthy Aunt Grissel, who might have left her an inheritance. But his wife, who’d been “reading romances,” insisted on Olivia and Sophia. “So we had two romantic names in the family, but I solemnly protest I had no hand in it,” he declares.
Goldsmith’s Olivia elopes with a cad who tricks her into a sham wedding. Then a servant tricks him and it turns out the marriage is valid after all.
“The Vicar of Wakefield” was a best-seller for over a century. It helped establish Olivia as a name for real girls in Britain and the United States.
Despite that, Olivia was never common in the 19th century. It was actually more popular in America than Britain. When the two nations had similar populations, 892 Olivias lived in the United Kingdom in 1851, while 2,806 were found in the 1850 United States Census.
In 1880, when Social Security’s annual baby name lists begin, Olivia ranked 235th. It gradually dropped until it fell below the top 300 in 1926.
Olivia had a small upswing in the 1940s inspired by actress Olivia de Havilland, most famous for playing Melanie Hamilton in 1939’s “Gone With The Wind.” De Havilland’s mother, Lillian Fontaine, was an English-born actress who read Shakespeare’s plays to her young daughters.
In 1951 the name again fell below the top 300. It steadily fell to its lowest rank, 543rd, in 1971.
Olivia’s rise in the 1970s is partly from television’s “The Waltons,” which premiered in September 1972 with Michael Learned starring as Olivia, mother of a seven children in Depression-era Virginia.
Much more important was Australian singer Olivia Newton-John. Her first hit single, “I Honestly Love You,” was released in 1974. The next year the name jumped 108 percent, its biggest percentage rise ever.
Olivia then plateaued for the next decade at around 220th. Its boom resumed in 1986. This was inspired by Walt Disney’s animated feature “The Great Mouse Detective,” whose heroine, a little girl mouse named Olivia Faversham, asks Basil of Baker Street to save her father from the evil Ratigan. In 1987, Olivia surged 36 percent, its third biggest jump.
Hollywood’s name feedback loop struck again in 1989 when devastatingly cute three-year-old Olivia Kendall (played by Raven-Symoné) debuted on “The Cosby Show.” In 1990 Olivia surged 84 percent and ranked 72nd, its first year in the top hundred.
Olivia continued to soar, entering the top 10 in 2001. Its sound fits in with other top names like Isabella, Emma, and Ava. Sophia and Olivia have been among the top five names for American girls since 2009 — something that wouldn’t surprise the Vicar of Wakefield.
In 2009, Olivia ranked third, its highest spot. Though Sophia’s rise bumped it back to fourth, Olivia’s highest percentage came in 2011, when almost 9 out of every 1,000 newborn girls were given the name. Olivia’s now at its peak. Thousands more will surely be born in the next decade.
Some Olivias born since Newton-John’s fame revived it are now getting famous themselves. R&B singer Olivia was born as Olivia Longott in 1981. Olivia Culpo, Miss Universe 2012, was born in 1992. Olivia Holt, star of the Disney Channel’s “Kickin’ it” was born in 1997.
Kids today know Olivia the Pig. Author Ian Falconer’s children’s book “Olivia” won the prestigious Caldecott medal in 2001 and has spawned 10 sequels. A Nickelodeon animated series featuring Olivia’s adventures began in 2009.
Falconer named his character after his newborn niece. The pig isn’t the only fictional character named after a real child. Dick Wolf, creator of the “Law and Order” television franchise, named Olivia Benson after his own daughter Olivia, born in 1984.