The Power Of Michelle?

Nov 21st 2008

An article in this week's Slate asks, "Why are there so many powerful Michelles in Washington?"  Abby Callard writes:

When Michelle Obama moves into the White House next year, she will immediately become the most famous member of one of Washington's most powerful and exclusive clubs: the Michelles.

Callard goes on to list the members of this powerful club, and to speculate on the reasons for the name's power mojo.

I tend to be a little blasé about reports that large numbers of successful people share the same hugely popular name.  After all, isn't that exactly what you'd expect?  Take, for instance, this 2005 column analyzing the claim that Davids and Susans are unusually likely to get rich.  But in the case of the Slate article, something else also gave me pause.  The master list of Washington-ruling Michelles included only one person with an actual role in the federal government (a member of congress).  The rest were mostly media commentators and wives of powerful men, plus a "well-known life coach."  Is that really the best female power name the capital has to offer?

First, let's take a look at the basic claim: do Michelles really rise to political power at a greater rate than other women?  Let's assume that the power age band in Washington covers roughly the birth years 1935-1975.  About 225,000 American women were named Michelle/Michele/Michell during that time, heavily skewed toward the latter half of the range.  The closest matches for that popularity history are Amy and Melissa.  If you tally up all the members of congress, cabinet secretaries and deputy secretaries, federal appeals court judges and state governers, you find exactly one Amy, one Melissa, and one Michelle, all in congress.  The null hypothesis is looking pretty good about now; Michelles look a lot like everybody else.

So, are there any real power names for Washington women?  In congress, the clear winner is Barbara.  The name boasts four members, including two senators.  (Significantly, the typical Barbara is a full generation older than the typical Michelle, suggesting that the latter name's power days may still lie ahead.)  If you broaden to the other categories of government leaders you find another name of interest -- the name which I'd tab as the true #1 political power name for women.  Any guesses?

Diana/Diane/Dianne has three representatives in Congress, and four more on the bench in federal appeals courts.  That swamps the numbers for similarly common names like Karen and Sharon. Plus you'll find more Dianes, Diannes and Dianas in politics in other nations throughout the English-speaking world.  Sure, it's a small sample and not statistically significant.  But going back to our discussion of names on ballots...if you see a candidate named Diane or Diana, don't you want to trust her?

Nominations, Please: The 2008 Name Of The Year

Nov 19th 2008

As the year draws to a close, we look back over the time that has passed and ask the question that's on everyone's mind. What was THE name of 2008?

The Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year isn't necessarily the most popular baby name -- the past two designees didn't even make the top-1000 charts.  It needn't even be the most talked-about name.  Last year's runner-up, Chuck, was notable for the way it sidled into the cultural jetstream when nobody was looking.  What it needs to be is...well, here's what I wrote last year:

Each year new baby names are created, old names are rediscovered, and familiar names start to sound different to us. Some of those changes are subtle or evolutionary. Others are just blips on the screen that will fade from memory. But perhaps one transformed name stands out above the others...a true Name of the Year?

The Baby Name Wizard Name of the Year could come from anywhere. It might be triggered by music (as Kanye was), movies (Charlize), politics (Monica), commerce (Armani), even the weather (Katrina). Or, like Nevaeh in 2003, it could seemingly come from nowhere to appear everywhere. Whatever its origins it should be a cultural time capsule, capturing some part of the zeitgeist in a single name.

Please post your nominations here, and feel free to second others. Criteria for the final choice will include:

- A dramatic change in the name's usage or social meaning

- A reflection of a broader cultural theme, or influence on broader style trends

- Your votes (frequency of nominations, and compelling arguments)

One additional note applies for this year.  The 2008 NOTY is not Barack.  Why?  Because we already tabbed it for 2007.  (Nice work, Baby Name Wizard community!)

Please post your nominations here, and look for the official Name of the Year announcement next month.

Name Spotlight: Spencer

Nov 12th 2008

One of my favorite things about the NameMapper tool is the way it can tell stories.  The Multi-map view in particular is full of narratives; I love watching a name spread slowly from region to region, or suddenly bloom across the country like Spring wildflowers.  And I particularly love when site visitors spot stories of their own.

One blogger noted the emergence of the boy's name Spencer in Utah in the early '70s, and its subsequent march across the U.S.  In fact, the closer you look at Spencer, the more patterns emerge.  Please join me for a journey through time and space on the back of one little name.  Tip: you might want to keep the NameMapper open in a separate window for illustration purposes.

Spencer is a classic occupational name meaning one who dispenses provisions; in other words, a pantry servant.  It's a top-200 surname in both the U.S. and the U.K., and has a solid history as a given name as well.  In fact, for many decades Spencer remained one of the steadiest and most timeless of American given names, never swinging into or out of fashion.  Then came the 1970s.

If you look at the Multi-Map view in the NameMapper, you'll see Spencer emerging as a popular name in and around Utah in the early '70s.  On the face of it, this is hardly remarkable.  Utah is the contemporary-naming capital of America.  Trendy new names launch their national campaigns in Utah just as presidential candidates launch theirs in Iowa.  Try typing similar occupational names like Parker, Tyler and Taylor into the Mapper and you'll see Utah popping up first.  In the case of Spencer, though, the trend was particularly dramatic thanks to a major figure in Utah life.  Spencer W. Kimball became president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) in 1973.  That religious role model was a perfect fit for Utah's existing name-style landscape, and the state has led the nation in Spencers ever since.

Over the following decade the name gradually crept up the national charts, buoyed by the rising tide of tradesman surnames and by some prominent Spencers in the broader culture.  (Luke Spencer hit General Hospital in 1978, and Lady Diana Spencer became Princess of Wales in 1981.)  Then came the big wave.  Flip to the Timeline tab in the NameMapper and you'll see the regional name Spencer go suddenly, dramatically national in 1986.  As a rule, that kind of blanket change requires blanket coverage, courtesy of television.  I'm guessing that many of you who can remember 1986 have an inkling what happened.  If not, perhaps this clue will help: Spenser, with an s, also made its first-ever appearance in the national top 1000 in 1986.

"Spenser: For Hire" was a detective show based on a series of novels by Robert B. Parker.  The main character went by a single name, putting the name Spencer in millions of American ears again and again through broadcasts, advertisements and news coverage. His cool private-eye image helped wash away the slight geekiness that used to cling to the name, paving the way for a burst of popularity.

Today Spencer is still a popular choice, but down from its peak.  On the map, it's slowly retreating to the same areas that favor other surnames like Tanner and Cooper.  And its future?  That's a hard call.  Names that rise fast usually fall fast, too, but Spencer has its long history of slow and steady use to fall back on.  This should be a good test of the theory that a timeless past can innoculate a name against a passing-fad future.