When Names Were Heroes
We don't name babies to honor people any more.
Yes, that's too sweeping a statement. You're probably dredging up examples right now to prove me wrong. But on a broad, societal level it's dramatically true -- a sweeping statement to represent a sweeping change.
It can be hard to appreciate the change, because we don't realize just how standard homage names were in generations past. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, politicians, military leaders and all manner of inspiring individuals could count on a bevy of namesakes. Today? Let's take a look.
The 2008 election saw the historic election of America's first black president. As you might expect, this event was commemorated in names. Approximately 60 more babies were named Barack or Obama than the year before. How big a deal was that? Well, it means hero naming for the new president accounted for .00001 percent of babies born, or one in every 71,000. Neither Barack nor Obama ranked among America's top 2,000 names for boys. In other words, the effect was so trivially small that you would never notice it unless you went searching for it. Recent presidents with more familiar names, like Clinton, fared even worse on the name charts.
Now roll back the clock to the presidential election of 1896. Democrat William Jennings Bryan inspired a dramatic jump in the names Jennings and Bryan. Those jumps accounted for one in every 2,400 babies born -- an effect 30 times bigger than Obama's. It was enough to rank both names in the top 300 for the year. And in case your American history is a little shaky: Bryan lost the election.
This isn't an anomaly. Generations' worth of presidential losers past inspired more namesakes than triumphant new presidents do today. The likes of James Blaine, Alton Parker and Charles Hughes were baby-name stylemakers back in the days when names were, routinely, heroes.
Presidents are just the tip of the iceberg. How about new vice presidents? Yep, plenty of them. Adlai Stevenson's VP nod in 1892, for instance, prompted a big spike in baby Adlais. Military leaders? You bet. The name Pershing made the top 1000 for three years running after World War I, but that's too easy. Try Schley, a hot name in 1898. (A gold star if you recall the controversy over credit for the Battle of Santiago de Cuba between Commodore Schley and Rear Admiral Sampson.) Cultural icons? Sure, the death of opera singer Enrico Caruso sent the name Enrico to its all-time high in 1921.
In short, almost anyone you could stand up and cheer for prior to WWII inspired baby name homages. And every one of the individuals mentioned in the paragraph above outpaced President Obama in the namesake wars.
Thoughts on the significance of this change in naming practices tomorrow... Continue to part 2.