Willard, and the Truth About Celebrity Baby Name Trends
In a discussion of current events, the name Willard Mitt Romney came up. "Where does a name like Willard even come from?" I was asked. "Why did people ever name their kids that?" The answer should sound familiar to anyone who follows today's baby name trends: it was the convergence of style and celebrity.
Willard comes from the Old English and Germanic roots will (will, desire) + hard (hardy, strong, brave). That pattern is familiar from names like Richard and Bernard (ric meant power, ber meant bear.) But Willard wasn't a particularly well-known name until the great ARD uprising of the 1910s. Take a look at what happened to boys' names ending in -ard during that decade:
Between 1911 and 1921, the number of American boys receiving an -ard name rose sixfold. Richard was the single biggest riser, taking its place as one of the core names of the 20th century. But among the less-established names, none gained more than Willard:
Pretty dramatic, eh? What does it take to make a name soar like that? Obviously, Willard's sound was cutting-edge cool. The popular nickname Willie also gave Willard a leg up on alternatives like Millard and Hayward. But the impressive spike in the year 1915 points to an outside factor. As it happens, 1915 was the year "Great White Hope" Jess Willard defeated the black boxing champion Jack Johnson to take the world heavyweight title.
Yes, Willard was a celebrity name. You can see Jess Willard's influence starting with a smaller spike in 1912, when the boxer fought his first marquee bouts and captured the public's imagination with his giant stature. (Willard's 6' 6.5" frame was extraordinary for the time.) His defeat of the legendary Johnson made him a bona fide national sensation.
The 1915 Willard surge utterly dwarfs the rise of many recent "hot celebrity names" like Miley and Maddox. At the time, though, it was little noted. That's just what happened with names of celebrities and heroes back then. Consider that in the first two years of Shirley Temple's fame, the number of girls named Shirley rose by an amount representing 2.5% of all female births. Today, the most popular name in America, Sophia, accounts for just 1.1% of girls born.
And yet, the public perception is that celebrity-driven name trends are a contemporary phenomenon, representing a new obsession with fame. I can't count the number of reporters who have asked me to comment on this uniquely modern trend, and what it means. What it mostly means is that we've forgotten the celebrities of the past.
How many of you, reading the name Willard in the title of this post, thought of Jess Willard? The boxer was hugely famous in his time. In addition to his four-year reign as world champion, he also attracted tragic notoriety for killing a man in the ring, and his 1919 championship loss to Jack Dempsey is one of the most famously brutal fights in history. But that was nearly a century ago, and boxing as a sport has nosedived in popularity. Jess Willard is now known only to afficionados, and Willard is no longer seen as a celebrity name.
In short: as long as there have been name trends, celebrities have inspired them. But even thousands of little namesakes aren't enough to make fame endure.