Presidential Names: A Global Tour

Nov 6th 2012

Today's presidential election, Barack vs. Mitt, is the least traditional name showdown in American presidential history. But by this point, every American has heard both of those names a little too often for them to retain much impact. (If you live in a battleground state, make that much too often.)

For an election day change of pace, allow me to direct your attention outside our borders, to a few of the most intriguing names of political leaders around the world.

The name of Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, epitomizes a difference in the use of "meaning names" among Christian, English-speaking Africans vs. Americans. American parents aim toward images of power or transcendence, and generally stick to nouns. (Destiny, Miracle, Messiah.) Those rules go double for boys. African parents, meanwhile, are more likely to dip into adjectives and verbs, and to choose imagery of affection and joy. (Precious, Gracious, Rejoice.)

Brazilian president Dilma Vana Rousseff was named for her mother Dilma da Silva, whose parents were ranchers of Portuguese descent. The name Dilma has been heard occasionally in various languages, but to the best of my knowledge isn't strictly a "traditional name" in any. Perhaps Ms. Rousseff's grandparents just liked the glamorous way it meshed with da Silva.

This Dutch surname became a distinctly American given name, thanks to two U.S. presidents. Yet Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit has extended Roosevelt's political bona fides to his Caribbean island nation of Dominica. The name doesn't seem to be out of the ordinary in Dominica, given that President Skerrit's biography notes that he served as the nation's Minister of Education following the death of the previous Minister, Roosevelt Douglas.

There is nothing surprising in the given name of Moldovan Prime Minister Vladimir Filat. Vladimir is a familiar name in Moldova and neighboring nations. The intriguing part is how Mr. Filat seems to present himself to the public with the nickname Vlad. That informality has become common among male politicians in the U.S. and U.K., but less so in Eastern Europe (consider Russia's Vladimir Putin).


November 6, 2012 10:30 AM

Wow, Roosevelt Douglas. That's an awesome name.

November 6, 2012 11:01 AM

I also pointed out something interesting on another name forum that I'll mention here - unlike what has traditionally been the case with boy's vs. girl's names, the candidates themselves (Barack and Mitt/Willard) have more unusual/distinctive names than their wives (Michelle and Ann). This coincides with the name stats of recent years where the number of Sophias (and for the two prior years Isabellas) have exceeded the number of Jacobs born. Except for the anomalous early years of the SSA lists where there were more females than males who got a Social Security number, the only other time that more girls than boys got the #1 name was for a brief time during Linda's peak in the early baby boom years (but when you got below #1 it quicly tapered off so there were many more boys with a top name). Despite the saturation of Jennifers among today's moms, it could not crack Michael's extraordinarily long running popularity for boys.

December 4, 2012 2:37 AM

Somewhat related - the middle names of leaders. 

ie William JEFFERSON Clinton (US), and John WINSTON Howard (Australian former Prime Minister.

Were they born to lead?  How many other people have those middle names (John Winston Lennon being the only exception I know of  :)  )

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ie William JEFFERSON Clinton (US), and John WINSTON Howard (Australian former Prime Minister.

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