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.


November 12, 2008 9:17 PM

I know a Spenser! (with an s) ...born a few years after 1986, too. I never realized it was a trend - I always thought his parents just liked the letter 's' (his last name starts w/ S and his brother's name starts w/ S).

November 12, 2008 9:19 PM

Thanks for the NameMapper walkthrough. My map shows that the name Spencer started in Wyoming, rather than Utah. Are there lots of Mormons in Wyoming?

November 12, 2008 9:24 PM

BTW, maybe we could get a walkthrough on how to read the Timeline Map showing Income, Population Density, Rep/Dem and Name Region. Thanks.

By Aybee (not verified)
November 12, 2008 9:41 PM

Tizrah- I agree. I think I could understand Namemapper better.

On Spencer-
I've known one in real life, in California, he'd be about 30 now.

I think you will see the popularity of Spencer decline because of the hard-to-like cast member of the same name on "The Hills." I don't even watch the show, but it is my first association with the name.

By Bridget (not verified)
November 12, 2008 10:05 PM

I'm glad you picked up on my blog post about Spencer! I've always felt the name had a distinctly Mormon ring to it, so it's great to read your take on the rest of the story.

By Amy3 (not verified)
November 12, 2008 10:17 PM

This is interesting because the only Spencer I know (or actually only know of) is a little boy born in Alaska in probably the mid-late 90s, and that's illustrated perfectly with Namemapper.

I agree that now Spencer Pratt would be many people's first association with the name. I don't watch "The Hills" either, but it's an almost-immediate association for me. I'm sure his star will fade fast, though.

November 12, 2008 10:27 PM

There were a few Spencers at my high school (in Hawai'i) so it's really interesting to me to hear that it has history in the LDS community. I feel like a lot of names popular in Hawai'i are also popular in like Utah, Montana, the Dakotas, etc. I wonder if it is because of the LDS population in Hawai'i too...

By Eo (not verified)
November 13, 2008 10:07 AM

Gosh, does no one make the connection to Spencer Tracy, one of the greatest of film actors? Where are the vintage film buffs-- I know you're out there!

Loved it when the late Katharine Hepburn was interviewed and she talked about long-time love Spencer Tracy. In her accent (Connecticut crossed with Bryn Mawr?) it was something like "SPEN-sah". He was sometimes called "Spence" as a nickname which I think is charming.

Tracy's film persona was of a rugged, no-nonsense, rock of integrity kind of guy, so the name has nice evocations of that for me...

By chrispy (not verified)
November 13, 2008 11:02 AM

It seems to me that one's age may have something to do with what comes to mind first with the name Spencer. I immediately thought of Spenser:For Hire, having been a teen when the show was on but having young children and now being a little bit (or a lot) out of the loop, I know very little about "The Hills". But thank you to Eo of reminding us of Spencer Tracy.

By chrispy (not verified)
November 13, 2008 11:02 AM

Oh, I am normally christinepearl

By Eo (not verified)
November 13, 2008 11:49 AM

You're welcome, chrispy/christinepearl. I don't think you're out of the loop at all. It just depends what type of popular culture you're drawn to-- which has much more to do with individual taste and oh, I guess, intellectual curiosity, than mere age, one hopes...

I've always been attracted to pop culture going way back to the Thirties. Not many of my contemporaries are interested in that era, but so?

Was "Spenser for Hire" played by that appealing actor Robert Urich-- he made the character even more interesting. I do like the Elizabethan or medieval spelling "Spenser" with an "s", harkening back to Edmund Spenser, one presumes.

November 13, 2008 12:48 PM

The only Spencer reference that I know is Spencer Tracy. I've never heard of these others (don't watch the hills), and I was born in the mid-80s so no worries Eo, you're not alone!

By Charly (not verified)
November 13, 2008 1:03 PM

I dated a Spencer, LDS, born in 1987 in Utah. Ha.

By J&H's mom (not verified)
November 13, 2008 1:42 PM

I've taught a few Spencers.
I also know a first grade Spencer who has brothers named Hayden and Carson.
It's one of the names I loved that my husband refused to even consider.

The Hills point is interesting. I wonder if it won't give the name a boost despite the character's reputation....I never know how to describe the people on these shows, btw, as they're "Scripted reality," a real head-scratcher of a term to me.
At any rate, most of these shows have had good-looking, womanizing,rich boys who seem to be big hits with teen girls anyway. Talon got a big boost from the earlier version of this show, and while he was an o.k. kid, he was hardly saintly. And, yeah....I'm embarassed to know all this. I have teenage nieces, what can I say?!

Thanks, Laura, for the reminder about Spencer for hire. I used to love that show!

Question: Has anyone heard of Spencer being used on girls? I know of one, and I've read name polls where posters called it a girl's name.

My other association with Spencer/Spenser is one of the Thomas trains. Maybe because of that it seems very classic and English to me.

By Mary Beth (not verified)
November 13, 2008 1:50 PM

I think of Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds.

By Kae (not verified)
November 13, 2008 2:06 PM

Hey all,
I don't want to side track the Spencer conversation- but on a side hubby and i are sitting down this friday to start talking about baby names for our upcoming arrival- I would love to hear any suggestions of names you like, so I can throw around different ideas.
We don't currently know the gender so need both girl and boy names.

Two of my top boy names are Elijah and Issac, still trying to think of some others... I kind of also like Dixon.

I'm scratching my head with girl names. I like Rosa, but not sure if I like it enough to use it. I also like Kiersten- with nn Kiersty.... but not sure if I like it enough to use it either.

Throw some names at me, and I'll see if they stick.

By JRE (not verified)
November 13, 2008 2:10 PM

Are you spying on me?

I was just making small talk with another mom at pick-up time and she was talking about her niece Spencer.

By Eo (not verified)
November 13, 2008 2:14 PM

Ha, as it happens I HAVE come across the Spencer from "The Hills", Jenny L3igh. Anyone who even occasionally flips through "Entertainment Tonite" would, wouldn't they? Don't find him compelling, I'm afraid, (but haven't really given him a chance.)

That's why I'm happy to see you and other people, who have a wider frame of reference.

Speaking of poet Edmund Spenser, it's interesting when people take up a poet's name and give it as a first. Any current little Spensers-with-an-"s" might probably be more attributable to the modern detective character of book, TV and movie fame, it's true.

But what about "Byron"? I often wonder if the crack investigative reporter Byron York had literary-leaning parents.

Lately, I've noticed a few parents using "Poe" as a middle name. And "Tennyson"-- some celeb used it recently, maybe more than one celeb?

Is it a phenomenon of kind of "borrowing" culture? Or perhaps the parent is a true passionate devotee of that particular poet?

I don't really like the trend. But there was an odd and interesting English thriller writer (in the Twenties or the Thirties?) whose name actually was "F. Tennyson Jesse". (The "F." was for "Fryniwid"-- isn't that delicious?)

In her case I think it's o.k. since she was apparently a great-niece or something of Alfred Lord Tennyson.

She chose wonderful titles for her books too. I think this is one of the most fascinating strings of syllables imaginable:

"A Pin for the Peepshow" by F. Tennyson Jesse.

Any other poets getting adopted as first names among your acquaintance? Oh, maybe I'm imagining it, but I think I heard of someone using "Millay"...

By Eo (not verified)
November 13, 2008 2:19 PM

Kae, since you like "Isaac" and "Elijah", what do you think of "Gideon"? Ooh, "Dixon" I like!

Could you give us more of an idea of your taste in girl's names? I do like many of the "Rose/Rosa" names, including those two, and "Rosamond" as well.

By Emily (not verified)
November 13, 2008 2:31 PM

My brother, born in 1983 in PA, is a Spencer. He's the only one I've ever known though. I have another brother, born 1980, named Nelson, also the only one I've ever known. Then there's me, an Emily born in 78. My parents were trying to pick names that weren't too common.. They did well with my brothers at least!

November 13, 2008 3:09 PM

Here are some more poet names worthy of consideration:

Pound (I don't see this one getting too much traction!)
Sexton (or this one, but it wouldn't shock me, sex being less of a taboo than weight gain!)
Lorca (already being used on a character on PBS's "Dragon Tales")

Others that I think are less likely to be used are Plath and Cummings.

By JillH (not verified)
November 13, 2008 3:14 PM

Eo: You have made me rethink Spencer. I never liked the name because of the store Spencer's, which sells some pretty bawdy stuff (I don't have a problem with the store, but don't like that reference for a person's name). And then Spencer Pratt didn't help. But I love your description of Katharine Hepburn saying the name, and I do agree that Spence is a really great nickname.

By Megan W. (not verified)
November 13, 2008 3:18 PM

There is a girl Spenser at the HS I teach at. I can never remember that it is a girl's name.

Other than that, I've known a couple of Spencers (male) one about age 8 (brother to a Madlyn) and a Spencer who is in his late 30s now. (Father to Cooper).

I'm not a big fan of the trade-names as first names, but I do like "Spence".

By Kae (not verified)
November 13, 2008 3:31 PM

Hey Eo,
I can be a little ecclectic in my tastes, I would go for names like Sophia, Olivia, Emma and Hanna if they weren't so popular. I don't mind names that are in the mid- popularity range, just would like to avoid top ten- unless I really loved it.

I like Josie- I would use it for a nn but don't really prefer any of the more formal versions like Josephine or Josette.

Other names that ring a bit of a chord for me: Tamsin, Rebecca, Elisabeth, Hope...

I would also be interested in a Hebrew name with a solid meaning and good sound....

Dixon was my grandfather's middle name, interestingly.

Thanks for any suggestions!

November 13, 2008 3:32 PM

I had a boss named Spencer, born in the 1940's, who was dishonest, thieving jerk.

I have met a female Spencer, born sometime in the 1970's.

By Coll
November 13, 2008 3:35 PM

The only Spencer I know is the 50-something father of one of my closest not a part of these trends. In fact, as my friend's middle name is Spencer, as well, I suspect it's a family name.

I've been bumping around on NameMapper ever since Laura's post. The Spencer trajectory is fascinating, but so are the (very similar) charts for two girls' names: Isabella and Sophia. Both names emerge suddenly in the mid '90s in all naming regions and have only slight variation in popularity according to income, population density, or political engagement.

In contrast, a name I consider to be similar in appeal, Grace, has a longer reign of popularity (in Alaska and Hawaii, most notably).

What makes two names suddenly take off across the board like that, without one particular area acting as a trend setter? Any guesses?

By Coll
November 13, 2008 3:43 PM

Kae, I really like the name Rivka, which I think is the Hebrew origin of Rebecca.

Gemma and Jemima have a similar feel to Tamsin for me (is this some memory of British tabloid-reading popping up in my subconscious?)

Josiane and Joscelyn could also take the nn Josie.

Rosalind is a "Rosa" name I also very much like.

Other names I'll throw out based on your list:

Liesl or Liesel

November 13, 2008 3:50 PM

Kae: I know Elijahs with brothers named Levi, Israel, and Joshua

Coll: I think a very important thing Grace has that Sophia and Isabella do not is a special place in Christianity. Most of the Graces I know in Hawai'i are from very Christian families.

By Amy3 (not verified)
November 13, 2008 4:15 PM

Emily -- I had to chime in about your brother's name, Nelson. I had never met a Nelson until I moved to NYC. I've since met 4, all Dominican.

By Megan W. (not verified)
November 13, 2008 4:53 PM

I forgot one more Spencer:

A British man(late 50's). He said he'd never met another until he moved to the US. Growing up (in Great Britain) his teachers would comment on how odd a name it was.

By Aybee (not verified)
November 13, 2008 4:54 PM

I felt I should address some of this since I was the first to bring up Spencer on "The Hills"...
I don't feel this is an indication of some myopic frame of reference ( I know who Spencer Tracy is). I was just pointing out that if it is a first association for me, a non-Hills watcher, it might be what comes to mind for many people when they hear the name Spencer.

Kae- I love the name Isaac. I would second the suggestion of Rebecca or Rivka for a girl. Perhaps also:

By Amy3 (not verified)
November 13, 2008 5:00 PM

Aybee -- Thanks for rehabilitating those of us who know about, even if we don't watch, "The Hills." I, too, know who Spencer Tracy is, as well as Edmund Spenser, but those weren't my first associations.

By toothfairy (not verified)
November 13, 2008 5:08 PM

This is off topic but I'm stumped!! What happened to the name Paul? It's disappeared from every single state's top 100 in the past 3 years. I've got kids named Isaac and Liam, and should we wind up with another son some day, Paul is on our short list. I can't think of any negative recent culture references...and it's a classic boy's name. Any thoughts??

November 13, 2008 5:11 PM

I love the name Spencer. It reminds me of other names like Christian, Jamison, Tanner, Wesley/Weston, etc. These are all on my "why not" list but would probably be on my dh's "I don't think so" list. Doesn't matter really because "why not" is because I am not having any more children!

Kae-Based on your tastes you've detailed above, I think of Chloe. Coll had some good suggestions too! I think we've talked about the not-so-frilly, sort-of-classic, travel-well names many times. Beatrice, Clementine, Georgianna, Julianna, Kimberley, Ophelia, Danika, Viveca, and Nicole are some others I like.

November 13, 2008 5:22 PM

The BBC reported today on the not-so-secret code names of Obama and family and his predecessors. Makes for entertaining reading!

November 13, 2008 5:47 PM

Just want to clarify my comment re: Spencer and The Hills, my roommate watches so certainly no judgement, I was just meaning to say I didn't know the character's name and my first thought when I hear Spencer is "Tracy" that's all!

Toothfairy- I don't know what happened to Paul, but I think it's a great classic name. I know one who would be about 24 now, one who is probably late 30's and a John Paul who is probably 16.

November 13, 2008 5:52 PM

Re Spenser/Spencer and poets' names--

A former colleague of mine (Harvard PhD in Renaissance lit) has two sons. The elder is a junior; the younger is Dante Spenser.

By Melanie1 (not verified)
November 13, 2008 6:00 PM

Interesting, about a month ago my husband had mentioned a conversation on how Spencer W. Kimball had led to quite a few Spencers in Utah and even some Kimballs, but that you did not see the same happening with Gordon Bitner Hinckley. I took the time to talk about how we'd been discussing that names need to be not just high profile, but also fit with the emerging trends to really take off. I had no idea that Utah was the "contemporary naming capital of America" though. I had to look it up to make sure I was right but the association in the back of mind was the TV show Psych. It is the character's last name.

toothfairy: Paul feels a little dated to me. I suspect that may have more to do with Paul disappearing than any specific bad association. The only association I can come up with is the singing group Peter, Paul, and Mary and Ron Paul. Not universally bad associations or recent ones either.

Given teh Mormon association, I find it very funny that my captcha is missionary.

November 13, 2008 6:06 PM

toothfairy: Paul strikes me as a little boring, but in that classic way. If that makes sense. Not sure why it's not coming back with the other classics... maybe the -l ending is not favored for some reason?

By Eo (not verified)
November 13, 2008 6:17 PM

Elizabeth T., "Lorca", of course! It is a ravishing literary name. And it makes me think of Liz & Louka's "Louka", which is another sound I like.

Banks watches "Dragon Tales" sometimes-- I'll have to check in and see if their other name choices are as interesting...

I love it when children's shows have great names on them!

toothfairy, odd you should mention "Paul". It has been growing on me, even though it is supposed to be a bit "played out". But increasingly, I really like it! That single, strong, pure syllable is nice.

Nice with Isaac and Liam, by the way.

Saint Paul in the Bible was such a complex, amazing character. And "Paul" also has an exotic French Huguenot flavor for me, with Paul Revere and all. Weren't the Reveres renowned silversmiths in the early American colony?

I rather hope you go for it!

Another name that's supposed to be a bit tired is "Mark", but I like it for similar reasons...

By momtochuck (not verified)
November 13, 2008 6:25 PM

Kelsey Grammer's daughter, probably in her 20s, is named Spencer. She's currently on a show on ABC Family about college. Not sure of the name.

My husband, 36, is named Barry Paul LASTNAME. I think both of his names are dated and do not like them at all, though I like him! He's named after his grandparents, Benjamin and Pauline.

By J&H's mom (not verified)
November 13, 2008 6:44 PM

Coll-Name mapper isn't working for me, but I wonder if Grace is still more popular in Minnesota and Washington state.

We're in Washington, and we know more Graces than any other single name-though most are preschool age, rather than babies.
There are also always scads of Graces in the alumni magazine from the private college my mother attended in Minnesota. I suspect this is partly because of the high concentration of Lutherans in Minnesota, and the centrality of Grace in that denomination.
None of that answers your questions, but I thought I'd add that to your list of things to ponder.

November 13, 2008 7:34 PM

J&H's Mom- I would seriously consider the name Spenser (that spelling) for a daughter. I love the name, and despite Ulrich and Tracy, it sounds too feminine for my ears to give to a boy (even though I like it on boys too, if that makes sense). Kelsey Grammer has a daughter named Spencer (she's on the show Greek).

November 13, 2008 7:38 PM

toothfairy- one of my son's best friends is named Paul, he's 16 (brother to Sarah). I've heard it in the preschool set recently, but not to a huge degree.

By Ben's Mummy (not verified)
November 13, 2008 8:05 PM

When I hear Spencer I think of, other then Spencer Tracy, the character off of King of Queens who's nerdy in a cute kind of way.

By Rhanda (not verified)
November 13, 2008 8:30 PM

I think that Spencer, right now -- people will think of that dood from 'The Hills.' But I don't think that will bear out over time.

No new Baracks or Michelles in our birth announcements this week, but a weird upswing in "Carson." I counted six or seven in a two-week span.

By enterbrainment (not verified)
November 13, 2008 8:49 PM

laura, do you have any comment on the obamas' secret service codenames?

November 13, 2008 8:53 PM

OT: I was talking to my friend Kristen and she was complaining that someone had spelled her name Kristin in a listserv or something and now everyone was misspelling her name. We got to talking about how the connotations of the two spellings are quite different and we both independently felt that Kristen has a more down-to-earth feel. Do other people get this? Anybody have an idea why? (I tried checking out the Voyager and Mapper but nothing's jumping out at me...)

By Amy3 (not verified)
November 13, 2008 10:22 PM

toothfairy -- Paul happens to be my oldest name love. I've been a total fan since I was a kid. It doesn't feel played out to me, but rather like a solid, classic name. Go for it!

By Eo (not verified)
November 13, 2008 11:09 PM

Aybee and Amy3-- I finally had a chance to go back and read carefully, and I think your points were well-taken.

Didn't mean to imply that either of you specifically had a narrow frame of reference. I was thinking more generally-- wishing that people's FIRST associations with names would be historical, rather than of-the-moment pop references.

But that reflects my own dreamy and goofy pull toward history and nostalgia and all that. So I hope you'll overlook a certain cloddish single-mindedness in my enthusiasms. I do apologize for the seeming condescension.

RobynT, I think of "Kristin" as a more strictly Scandinavian spelling, for some reason. Is that true? But for all I know, "Kristen" is just as authentic. I've even seen "Kristan" which I like far less than the first two... Isn't there also Kersten/stin? I knew a woman of Estonian background whose full name (NOT a nickname) is "Kersti", which is a nice Estonian or Baltic variation on a theme.

That's interesting that Kelsey Grammer's daughter is Spencer. He must have a decades-old affinity for surnames, since his younger daughter is "Mason"-- I think he said they call her "May" for short. Doesn't he have one other child? Would be interesting if his/her name continues the pattern...