The presidential curve

Jul 8th 2005

Up through the mid-20th Century, a new American president was almost always immortalized by a crowd of newborn namesakes. Every presidential surname except Van Buren, Fillmore, Buchanan and Eisenhower has made the top-1000 name list at some point in the past 125 years. Today, though, parents are a little more wary about granting namesakes. They wait to see how the presidency is going to play out before committing a child's name to the cause. (The hundreds of boys named Harding in the early '20s would probably support this prudent approach.)

But presidential names as a whole are more popular today than ever before. Far, far more popular. Here's the overall presidential curve:


Aside from Arthur (which is kind of a cheat -- a classic first name rather than a converted surname), the presidential names used to be marginal. Now they're mainstream.

So what's the allure? I'll hazard a guess it's not just American patriotism, given all the Australian girls named Madison and the Canadian boys named Carter. And how many parents of a Tyler could even name that president's political party? But even when the presidential link is weak, its influence is there shaping the name's style. The presidential names epitomize what parents like about the surname style: names that feel familiar and substantial, but fresher than the classic English given names.

Here's the historical graph showing current popularity (for both sexes) vs. presidential chronology:

While it's tempting to read a lot into that curve, I think the results say more about style than politics. Most of the top choices fit stylish categories that I've discussed before, such as tradesman names (Taylor, Carter) and surnames that contract to traditional nicknames (Jefferson, Harrison). Meanwhile the cumbersome but strongly historical names like Washington and Roosevelt have disappeared. Perhaps most surprising is the recent scarcity of Lincolns. That's a swift, fashionable name with a strong nickname and even stronger heritage. Look for a comeback soon.

Comments

1
By Anonymous (not verified)
July 10, 2005 3:28 PM

"Every presidential surname"? Nixon? Bush? Even Adams? I don't see them in the top 1000...--Nicole

2
By Anonymous (not verified)
July 10, 2005 11:11 PM

"Up through the mid-20th Century"aka"Until the 1950's"

3
By Anonymous (not verified)
July 11, 2005 12:07 AM

Okay, I went back and re-read the first sentence, and I see the caveat now. I should trust Laura to do her homework. But I stand by "Adams," since both of them came before the mid-20th century, and I'll throw Polk in there, too; I don't see either of those names in the top 1000.--Nicole

4
By Laura (not verified)
July 11, 2005 1:06 AM

Nicole - names like Adams and Polk had their heydays back in the 1800s. They're not top-1000 names today, but they were back then. Polk last made the list in 1890, Adams in 1898.(By the way, I can't peg the mid-20th-century change specifically to the 1950s, since the only president elected in that decade was named Eisenhower! It seems to be a gradual decline from about Roosevelt to Johnson.)

5
By Anonymous (not verified)
July 11, 2005 12:27 PM

"But presidential names as a whole are more popular today than ever before."The interesting thing about this statement is that the opposite seems to be true, if 'presidential names' is taken to mean 'first names that sound presidential'.I haven't done any research, and my category is somewhat subjective. But names that I think of as 'presidential', like William, James, Henry, John, George and Thomas, aren't nearly as popular as they used to be.Perhaps, Laura, you could show a similar graph for first names of presidents?Just a thought.--Eric

6
By Anonymous (not verified)
July 11, 2005 4:13 PM

Laura:Do you really think that the current popularity of "Tyler" really has anything to do with President Tyler? I'm not sure. My theory is that it is really part of a growning trend that for what ever reason, new parents seem to be naming their kids after Cities in Texas. I have no clue why, but I have noticed all of a sudden, Austin is also poplular (both a lady at work's 9 year old, and my 1 month old nephew), as well as Tylers. I've even noticed anecdotal evidence of Dallas's, and Odessa's, and a few more. Perhaps it has something to do with the sudden resurgence in country music, especially in the area of the country where I live (South-East Central PA) but I'm only guessing.

7
By Anonymous (not verified)
July 11, 2005 4:35 PM

Laura:Do you really think that the current popularity of "Tyler" really has anything to do with President Tyler? I'm not sure. My theory is that it is really part of a growning trend that for what ever reason, new parents seem to be naming their kids after Cities in Texas. I have no clue why, but I have noticed all of a sudden, Austin is also poplular (both a lady at work's 9 year old, and my 1 month old nephew), as well as Tylers. I've even noticed anecdotal evidence of Dallas's, and Odessa's, and a few more. Perhaps it has something to do with the sudden resurgence in country music, especially in the area of the country where I live (South-East Central PA) but I'm only guessing.

8
By Anonymous (not verified)
July 12, 2005 12:22 AM

Ha! Cities in Texas?! I'll believe that when I meet a kid named Laredo. Perhaps Wisconsin can lay claim to the Madison trend, however.--Elizabeth

9
By Anonymous (not verified)
July 12, 2005 5:56 PM

What would really be interesting is to compare the presidential names to the popularity of presidential losers (Dukakis, Mondale, or Dole, anyone?) to see if winning the election confers any future benefit on the popularity of a name. There might be other sociological influences at work that would be tough to tease out, but my hunch is that once a president is elected, his surname takes on the sheen of a winner, even if history deems otherwise.

10
By Lara (not verified)
July 14, 2005 10:58 AM

We've planned for years to give a son the middle name Truman. This has everything to do with one of our favorite movies and nothing to do with the President that was from the state in which we reside!

11
By Elaine (not verified)
July 16, 2005 1:04 AM

Actually, Kennedy has made it into foreign languages, even non-Western languages: there's a well-known soccer forward in Sweden (of turkish descent) called Kennedy Bakirciöglu.

12
By KM (not verified)
July 16, 2005 3:18 AM

Names in Texas! Haha! I have two friends and every baby name they come up with has some tie to Texas--Addison and Austin are two of their favorites.

13
By Anonymous (not verified)
July 16, 2005 3:48 AM

Laura, since the Wizard does go back to the 1890s, shouldn't Polk appear on the graph if it was in the top 1000? Or maybe I don't quite understand how it works. I guess you'd have to average out the 1000 most-popular names for the entire decade, and if Polk was minimally popular (say in the top 1000 for just one year of the decade) I can see that it wouldn't register when you looked at the decade as a whole.Speaking of Eisenhower, my husband wants to name our soon-to-be-born son Ike. My mother says it will just remind her of how much she disliked Mamie's hairdo.--Nicole

14
By Ash-o-ley (not verified)
August 2, 2005 7:26 AM

My theory about the popularity of Tyler is that it had little to do with John Tyler, cities in Texas, floor tiles, or country music.Parents probably just picked it because it sounded nice, fresh, and cowboy-esque.

15
By Anonymous (not verified)
December 14, 2005 4:57 AM

Hello... Tyler Durden... character from the movie Fight Club. Look to the pop culture, I always say.

16
By Anonymous (not verified)
January 23, 2006 6:18 AM

I must say I'm attracted to girl names such as Reagan and Kennedy.Taft may not be so bad for a boy either.

17
By Eamon (not verified)
December 29, 2006 2:58 PM

Love the Celtic / Gaelic names. This one still isn't very popular. What is the standing, do you know?