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.

Pre-judging Judges?

Nov 6th 2008

America elected a new president on Tuesday.  Perhaps you heard?  Obama's triumph was the world's huge news story, but across the country many thousands more candidates were voted in and out of local offices.  My ballot included a plethora of races for positions like Register of Probate and Regional Vocational School District.  I'm sure I'm not the only reasonably well-informed voter who sometimes stares down at a list of local candidates and thinks "Uh-oh. Some of these are just random names to me."

An election of random names. Interesting, eh?  For all of the attention that's been paid to Barack Hussein Obama's name, the fact is that a presidential candidate becomes so well known by the public that his name alone can't define him.  But in local elections, especially elections for large slates of jobs, a typical voter is often asked to chose among a group of people knowing little but their names.  If name-based discrimination really exists, could this be a place we'd spot it?

In fact, the Houston Chronicle thinks they might have spotted some.  An article in this morning's paper describes a curious electoral pattern in Harris County, Texas.  Harris County voters had over a hundred local races to decide, including 32 separate District Judge contests.  We can't expect a typical voter in that situation to be genuinely familiar with all of the hundreds of candidates.  So all many had to go on was name and party affiliation.  Not surprisingly, party affiliation dominated: a wave of straight-party Democratic voting swept most of the 32 District Judge races.  Most, but not all.  The Chronicle reports speculation that the four Democratic candidates who lost were brought down by their "unusual names."  They were:

Ashish Mahendru
Mekisha Murray
Andres Pereira
Goodwille Pierre

Judging by surnames like Murray and Pierre, we can safely assume they're talking about unusual first names.  And judging by the first name Andres, we can safely assume that "unusual" is a big, whopping euphemism.  (A look at the NameMapper will show you that the familiar Spanish name Andres has ranked among the top-100 names in Texas for years.)  So instead of "unusual," let's just be upfront and say "non-white."  Meanwhile the winning candidates in those contests were named Sharon, Mark, Patricia and Joseph.

Keep in mind that most of the judicial races were decided by just a few percentage points.  With only two factors to judge by, name and party, it's certainly conceivable that names could have influenced just enough voters to sway those races.  But before drawing any conclusions we should look at the full body of candidates running for all 32 jobs.  I've reviewed the full Harris County judicial election results; here are the names of the winning Democrats:


Of the 28, I see only three names that would typically be identified as non-white: Dion, Josefina, and Ruben.  That totals seven non-white given names out of 32 Democrats, with all four losers selected from those seven.  What are the chances that selection would happen randomly?  By my calculations, less than one chance in a thousand.

Of course, it's just one set of races in one county.  I don't pretend to know whether other issues affected those four candidates.  But if I were a scholarly researcher trying to isolate real-world effects of baby names, I'd be mighty tempted to take a broader look at "name-only" contests like these across America.

If You're Seeing Any Surprising Ads...

Nov 3rd 2008

As we count down the hours to the election, I've been informed that users in certain geographic areas are seeing some unexpected advertisements on my website.  It appears that the ad server registered words like "Palin" and "Maverick" in my most recent post and assumed that it had found a conservative political blog.

So just to clarify, we're non-partisan baby namers here at

Just 24 more hours...hang in there, everybody! :-)