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Evans: From saintly to 'Bye Bye Birdie,' the name Conrad has fluctuated in popularity

Evans: From saintly to 'Bye Bye Birdie,' the name Conrad has fluctuated in popularity

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Will Conrad keep his job?

When Fox’s medical drama “The Resident” went on a short hiatus in December, title character Dr. Conrad Hawkins (Matt Czuchry) was in danger of being fired by corporate executives who run his Chicago hospital. Otherwise, he will become chief resident. Fans learn his fate Tuesday.

Conrad is the modern form of an ancient Germanic name combining “kuoni” (brave) and “rad” (counsel.)

The first famous Conrad was St. Conrad (900-975), bishop of Constance, a city on Germany’s border with Switzerland. He once drank a chalice of concentrated communion wine a spider dropped into. Because they thought that all spiders were poisonous, Conrad’s contemporaries saw this as proof of great bravery.

Because of the saint’s fame, Conrad became a royal name in Germany. Conrad III (1093-1152), first king of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, was a leader of the Second Crusade.

Conrad remained popular in Germany, while always being rare in Britain. The 1851 British census found only 210 Conrads. The U.S. census in 1850, when the two countries had about the same population, included 6,657. Over half were born in Germany or Switzerland.

In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby name lists began, Conrad ranked 262nd. Though its use then drifted downward, this very German name surprisingly rebounded during World War I.

Two men whose last name was Conrad may have helped. During the war, Austrian Field Marshal Franz Conrad, Baron von Hötzendorf (1852-1925), was considered a military genius despite many defeats. Perhaps more importantly, Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), best known today for “Heart of Darkness” (1899), was then at the height of his fame.

After 1920, Conrad’s popularity was maintained by Conrad Nagel (1897-1970). Largely forgotten today, Nagel was a top Hollywood star, playing romantic leads in so many 1920s silent films that he quipped, “I was an epidemic.” After talkies arrived, Nagel’s strong baritone voice led to success as a character actor. Conrad’s top rank as a baby name, 213th, came in 1931, the year between Nagel’s two stints as host of the Academy Awards.

During the baby boom, Conrad receded. Boomers themselves are likely to remember musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” in which rock star Conrad Birdie (based on Elvis Presley) comes to a small Ohio town to kiss a randomly chosen teen fan before he’s drafted into the Army. A memorable scene in the 1963 film has Birdie’s female fans sing “We love you, Conrad” while their boyfriends respond with “We hate you, Conrad.”

Though hotel magnate Conrad Hilton (1879-1979) countered that image with one of wealth and power, the name fell to 836th in 2005.

TV sparked a revival. “CSI” (2000-15) featured recurring character Conrad Ecklie (Marc Vann), who became more sympathetic over the series’ long run. The name began a steady rise when “Revenge” (2011-15) featured handsome, corrupt millionaire Conrad Grayson (Henry Czerny). This accelerated when Keith Carradine showed up as President Conrad Dalton on “Madam Secretary” (2014-19).

Americans over 40 still often think of elderly German uncles or “Bye Bye Birdie” when they hear Conrad. Several younger women I’ve asked think the name is “preppy,” which explains why the writers of “The Resident” named their handsome lead Conrad.

In 2018, Conrad ranked 543rd for babies. If Dr. Hawkins keeps his job, even more Conrads will be arriving soon.

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Legends about the Seth of the Bible were featured in “Cursor Mundi,” a poem written in northern England around 1300. Perhaps that’s why Seth was used by several prominent Yorkshire families by 1450, a century before the Reformation created a general fashion for Old Testament names.

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