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 16, 2008 4:51 PM

Okay, here's my go at baby name alert. I'm a children's minister in the midwest at a church with english speaking, thai/laos speaking, arabic speaking, chinese speaking, and spanish speaking congregations. SO, I feel it's an interesting mix of names I come across. I thought I'd list some sibling sets today:

Sunita -g, Lolita -g, and Sanoah -b
Gavin, Dylan, and Chase (all boys)
Mario and Olivia
Esther and Erin (both girls)
I love this one: Nicole and Nicolas :)
Eli -b and Keziah -g
Casey-b, Levi -b and Tessa -g

I'll list more another time.

By J&H's mom (not verified)
November 16, 2008 5:54 PM

Zephyn sibs: Sage, Breeze, Alma, Sapphire, Bryce, Hazel

I know that seems like an odd mix, but I think the thing to do is go "Traditional hippie," or "So old it's in," or "Androgynous makes it cool."
I'd avoid anything that was too obvious a match, as I think an eclectic miss-match reads as more effortlessly cool-which I'm sort of assuming is what a mom hoping for a Zephyn is after.

November 16, 2008 6:07 PM

Bethany-Thanks for the sib sets. Interesting matches except for Casey, Tessa, and Levi. All the other sets seem to go together. Tessa seems odd with Casey and Levi which seem biblical/older names Tessa seems like a new hipper name. Is it biblical? You know I'm not up on my "literature" LOL.

November 16, 2008 6:50 PM

Bethany: So interesting! I'm interested in hearing more about this set: "Sunita -g, Lolita -g, and Sanoah -b." Sunita struck me as Indian but the others are totally throwing me off. Do you get the sense they are from the family's heritage or it's more like they chose names/sounds from all over that appealed to them?

with this set, "Gavin, Dylan, and Chase (all boys)" I feel like Gavin was popular in the '80s, Dylan in the '90s and Chase in the '00s, but I'm guessing they're closer in age than that. I can't get my head around that one... maybe they got more adventurous along the way?

This one is also interesting to me: "Casey-b, Levi -b and Tessa -g." Casey and Levi seem so different! The only similarities I see are number of syllables and ending sound. Associations seem different to me. Casey seems more '70s/'80s. Levi has the Jewish affiliation. Hrm...

Saw an Abner in the listings today. Also, two Kingstons! And a Stealth.

By Wendolyn (not verified)
November 16, 2008 6:54 PM

I am hoping for input on twin names, one boy and one girl. Our surname is four-syllable and Italian: akin to DeCabrini.

The girl's name is decided: Esmé. Under consideration for the boy's name are: Enzo (too "matchy" with Esmé?), Theo (like it, but not in love with the harder "ee" sound with Esmé) and Oscar (potentially too popular).

Comments much appreciated.

November 16, 2008 8:50 PM

Wendolyn: I love all your names!! I love Esme and Enzo so much that even though they are kind of cutesy together I still love it! I think Theo is my least favorite. IDK if it is because of the problem with the sounds you mention or maybe because it feels too much like a nickname. I don't think Oscar is too popular. Is it where you are? I don't think I've ever met anyone named Oscar. I might worry about the other two being more popular actually.

By Louise (not verified)
November 16, 2008 9:25 PM

Wendolyn: I too love your names and I think all of them would go with Esme and your LN. I agree with RobynT and say Esme and Enzo is so cute, but you could get away with it, especially as the 's/z' sounds are in different spots in the names... Oscar doesn't 'flow' the same way that the others do but I don't think it is too popular.

By Melissa C (not verified)
November 16, 2008 10:36 PM

See when I read it I liked Esme and Oscar the best together... although I also like Esme and Enzo... not keen on Theo. I thought Esme and Oscar have the same feeling, sort of antique style with a modern touch.

I have never met some one named Oscar before either... so its not popular here... but then again I have never met and Enzo, or Theo either.

Good Luck with your naming decision.

By Amy3 (not verified)
November 16, 2008 10:46 PM

Wendolyn -- I adore Enzo so will vote for that as Esme's twin, hands down. I don't find them too matchy at all. However, Oscar would be my second choice. I know of only one Oscar. He would be about 5. Theo is nice, but I don't like it as much as the other two.

zoerhenne -- Tessa is a diminutive for Teresa/Theresa.

By Coll
November 16, 2008 11:05 PM

Wendolyn, you've got great taste in names. I like all three boys names. My favorite with Esmee is Theo, but I think they're all precious.

Can I make the case for my beloved Jasper?

November 16, 2008 11:52 PM

I LOVE Esme and Oscar, then Esme and Theo (although I'd go for the full Theodore and use Theo as the nn). Both sound great as sib sets. I think Esme and Enzo is WAY too matchy. I really dislike them as a pair, although each is a great name on its own.

November 17, 2008 5:13 AM

How are you pronouncing Esme? I would say Esmee, but I know lots of you say Esmay and I noticed you used an acute accent which suggests that you would go for Esmay.

I think Esme and Enzo are too matchy, and although I love Theo I think if it's Esmee and Thee-o they are also too matchy. So I vote for Oscar. Esme and Oscar are cool. Had you thought of Milo?

November 17, 2008 9:40 AM

Wendolyn-None of these names is popular where I am (Central Atlantic USA). None are really my style either but just for the vote I will say Oscar. I've never known anyone irl with these names. Theo makes me think of the boy on the Cosby Show. Oscar is of course from the Odd Couple. Esme sounds like it could be short for Esmerelda of Bewitched. YES, I watch WAY too many late night 70's sitcoms.
I did once know a baby named Renzi (actual name-not nn). He'd be in his 20's now.

November 17, 2008 12:36 PM

Are you perhaps in California or somewhere else in the Southwest? I ask because I'm in So Cal and do think that Oscar is more popular here than in other locations in the US. (I just looked it up on the SSA website, and while it's ranked #121 nationally, its the 65th most popular name in CA.) I think it's currently favored by the Hispanic community, making it more common in states with large Hispanic populations.
I do love the name, though, and don't think it's so popular that you'd be seeing multiple per class, or anything similar. I also really like Enzo...

By Guest (not verified)
November 17, 2008 12:41 PM

I think Katya is the perfect nickname for Katherina, esp. given her Russian heritage.

November 17, 2008 12:59 PM

Zoerhenne - The only name that is biblical out of that set is Levi. I really don't know how they came to those choices except for... she works with kids for a living and I know that has a tendency to narrow down the list quickly for those who do (I know it did with me). If you use namemapper's timeline you'll see that all three names are pretty popular in the "Frontier" area - to be honest Casey and Levi both kinda sound like good frontiersmen names... Maybe Tessa sounds like a trailblazer's name too?

RobynT - Sunita, Lolita, and Sanoah are either thai or laos... I think Sanoah and most likely Sunita are names from their home... I have my doubts about Lolita.

As far as Gavin, Dylan, and Chase. Gavin has only recently become popular in the U.S. Dylan is a little older but still did not reach it's height until 2001. (All the kids are under 5.)

Wendolyn - My vote is for Enzo... I like a name pair that somewhat matches without being too cutesy and I think that these fit that criteria.

Theo is nms at all, and does remind me of the Cosby's too. Oscar is very common in hispanic circles... and I have a brother-in-law with the name. He was often called Oscar the Grouch or Oscar Meyer weiner (even though he grew up in a highly hispanic community). I think it's a cute name, but you might want to keep this in mind if you choose this name.

How about a little help for my brother and sister-in-law who are expecting their 3rd girl? I personally don't think their name choices go together terribly well, but to each his (or her) own. (I think it really boils down to not being able to agree on much of anything - maybe that's the real reason sibling sets sometimes don't go together well.) They already have identical twin girls: Caitlyn Elise and Alexandra Christine. If they ever have a boy they would like to name him Calvin James. Right now, they have Saralah chosen as a first name and are trying to decide between Grace or Karis (which means grace) as a mn.

By Wendolyn (not verified)
November 17, 2008 1:30 PM

Thank you so much for the comments regarding a sib/twin name to go with Esmé. We do intend the Esmay pronunciation.

So far the majority favors Enzo, which is my favorite on its own, but I do remain concerned about being to cute/matchy.

After pondering your input, I think we will take Oscar out of the running. I think the risk of Oscar the Grouch/Meyer is too great. My thoughts about its popularity are based on its overall U.S. ranking, and that I could see it becoming the next Oliver.

Thoughts about Coll's suggestion of Jasper? I think it is terrific, but have always felt it had a western flavor, thus perhaps not as good a style match for Esmé and our surname? Thoughts about Keren's suggestion of Milo?

November 17, 2008 2:07 PM

Bethany: I think it's interesting that Lolita and Sunita sound alike. Makes me wonder if they chose Lolita as a "western" name that had that sound connection to a name from their culture.

About Gavin, Dylan, and Chase: hrm.. I must've just grown up in a Gavin pocket!

Caitlin Elise, Alexandra Christine, Saralah Grace, Saralah Karis: seems like they like feminine, but are open to either classic or more adventurous. I wonder if they would like Colette, Hazel, or Vera? Might be too old-fashioned for them...

Wendolyn: I think Milo is cute, but maybe too cute. I think I could come to think of it as an adult name but I'm not there yet. Associations include Milo and Otis and also the character on The Oblongs (a sort of weird, obscure cartoon).

By Guest (not verified)
November 17, 2008 2:16 PM

Agreed that Saralah doesn't match with Caitlyn/Alexandra/Calvin. All I'm hearing is the Yiddish nickname for Sara.

By Marjorie (not verified)
November 17, 2008 2:19 PM

Thoughts on Milo as a twin with Esme (with an accent!)

I don't often offer opinions on suggested names but would prefer the sound of Miles instead of Milo.

By Elizabeth in Canada (not verified)
November 17, 2008 3:31 PM

@ Wendolyn: I adore Esmé and I've never heard of anyone I know of using it, but I am afraid my DH will someday veto it for being too "out there" (he's a meat and potatoes type of guy).

I LOVE Esmé and Jasper together, and Esmé and Milo would be my second choice, as I have never fully gotten on board with Milo. Although I like Enzo, it would be far too matchy with Esmé for my personal taste.

Just a note - both Esmé and Jasper are characters in the Twilight series of books, soon to be a movie (or several). Although neither are main characters in the books, I think it's possible they will become a bit more popular since they'll be more in the public consciousness (and many fans are in, or about to be in, their prime baby-naming years). I still love them and would use them though.

By tess
November 17, 2008 4:01 PM

Wendolyn..I love Enzo and I think it is often used as a nn for longer names in Italy. So, may I suggest Lorenzo(nn Enzo) and Esme? You somewhat sidestep the possible "matchy" issue. I love Enzo and Esme. Jasper is one of my favorite names and I think it works with your Italian last name. It sounds classic and stately, like Esme.I guess I would type an English lord's name or maybe, a poet. Milo is dear, but there are a growing number of babies named Miles around me and it might be lumped in and lose its specialness.I love all of your choices.

November 17, 2008 4:03 PM

How about Esme and Nico? Nico is an Italian nn for Nicholas.

November 17, 2008 7:36 PM

Bethany: I do agree that they all sound a bit western "trailblazer". Maybe that is what they were going after. Nice analysis!

Wendolyn: Seeing Esme and Jasper, and Esme and Milo in print makes me lean toward Jasper because of the cohesive look of the two. Jasper shares a similar letter pattern with the S and E being in close proximity. Milo does not do this. My NE mind says this is somewhat important but to most it is probably silly at best. Milo seems to share a similar "artsy" style so there's that too.
Other ideas--Leonardo, Victor, Quentin, Maximillian, Xavier, Julian/Jules, Ricardo/Richard, Weston/Wesley, Alfonso, Gregory, Tyler

November 17, 2008 7:37 PM

Hi everyone -- if you are on Facebook you can now become a "fan" of Baby Name Wizard... search for Baby Name Wizard on Facebook or try this URL

By tess
November 17, 2008 7:48 PM

Wendolyn- How about Dante? Too close in cadence to Esme? In honor of this week's posting he might be Dante Spencer DeCabrini:) !

By Guest (not verified)
November 17, 2008 7:51 PM

On Esme and Jasper: I think they sound great together, but they are (as mentioned) two of the Twilight characters. They are fairly major characters, and are part of the same adoptive family. I think for anyone who has read the books (and they are all NY Times Best Sellers) or who sees the movie (coming out this week), the combination of names will scream "Twilight". And many will assume you are a big fan. This will be more of an issue for younger women and teens, who are the big fan base, from what I've seen. I think even Esme by itself will get some comments, but the combination definitely will!

November 17, 2008 9:27 PM

Well, I've joined the facebook group, which is great, but of course realize that as so many of you use screen names, I probably won't recognize you! Shame...

November 17, 2008 9:50 PM

JB - thanks for the facebook link! I added it!

By C & C's Mom - and now B! (not verified)
November 17, 2008 9:50 PM

I know a female Spencer - around age 12. And I know a male Grier in his early 20s.

I too was going to suggest Lorenzo (nn Enzo) for Esme. ANother name that pops in my mind for a match to Esme is Julian.

By C & C's Mom - and now B! (not verified)
November 17, 2008 9:51 PM

Ok - I'm off to find the facebook link.

By Elaine (not verified)
November 17, 2008 10:19 PM

I love Esme! I think Nico is a great suggestion (short for Nicholas).

By another amy (not verified)
November 18, 2008 12:15 AM

I'm behind on reading posts--I had no real idea of how much more work 2 little ones would be than 1 little one--but I wanted to just tell Laura that the mapping tool is so much fun! for some reason the graphics stick in my brain more than words do right now.

looking forward to future posts on this tool....

November 18, 2008 1:04 AM

Tess-I love your suggestion of Dante Spencer to Wendolyn! Wish I had thought of it!

November 18, 2008 1:16 AM

If Esme's big in Twilight, I'll put it on my list for top riser of 2009. sigh. I guess I'll have to read those books!

Anyhow, I was playing around on the mapper, and noticed that Hayden follows a pattern similar to Spencer, though it spreads from Utah (first appearance 1991) at a much faster pace- so, because I'm a terrible procrastinator, I tried out a few others. Tons more fit the pattern Laura identified, but some really curious ones do not. The names I tried out are mostly surname-style ones (and the -aidens).

Ryan (65), Bryce (75), Colton (86), Riley (87), Brayden (92), Carson (92), Braxton (94), Kaden (94), Jaden (94), Caden (97), Kayden (01) ALL follow this same pattern almost perfectly. What's really odd is that Aidan, Aiden and Ayden do not follow the pattern- Aidan turns up simultaneously on the east and west coast in 1999. Other non-conforming names are Logan, Hunter and Jackson- but Jaxon (98) very much conforms. Mason (which turns up first in North Dakota), Chase (Idaho, 1982) and Ashton (00), are very close misses, having the same "diagonal" spread as the Utahn names. Another oddity is Landon, which turns up first in Utah in 1981- but it takes 22 years for it to catch fire across the US. Brady (which turns up in Utah, Montana and Wyoming in 1973) is another one that doesn't quite fit the pattern: it's a Utah name *until* it goes more national around 2000- at which point it disappears from Utah entirely.

In general, what's with Utah and surnamey-names? It doesn't seem limited to trades names with religious or pop-culture connotations, though it does seem related to surnames- I tried out some other trendy names for control (Gavin, Connor, Noah, Ethan etc)- no such pattern.

So are Boston, Easton, Kyler, Porter and Lincoln the next big names in America?

45 minutes later...Laura W., this name mapper is a monster time sink!

November 18, 2008 1:45 AM

I love Jasper, Milo and Julian as sibs for Esme! What about Bruno or Hugo?

By tess
November 18, 2008 1:57 AM

Wendolyn- My son suggested Rocco. It is his favorite Italian boy name and someone "took it" before he had a chance to use it.

By EssBee (not verified)
November 18, 2008 1:58 AM

I bet the sudden appearance of top 100 Aiden on the East and West coasts has a lot to do with Sex and the City. Does anyone know what year the Aiden character first appeared on screen.

By Melissa C (not verified)
November 18, 2008 2:15 AM

Is it just me or is Lily or Lilly... seem to be a big hit this year. I know that old fashioned is in... but several babies born in 2008 that I met are named Lily. I also know several people considering that name for a girl.

Also when I heard the Esme and Jasper suggestion I thought of the Twilight movie.. .but I have also read the book.

By Knee Coal Peay (not verified)
November 18, 2008 2:31 AM

I know a little Spencer who was born in August. His parents are creative types who would be devastated to see this post, as they were convinced they found a name no one else his age would have. Such is life.

By Penny in Australia (not verified)
November 18, 2008 5:57 AM

I think Esme and Enzo are a bit too matchy, but love the suggestion of C & C's Mom and Tess for Lorenzo with Enzo as a nickname!

November 18, 2008 12:03 PM

Melissa C, Lily/Lilly has been rising sharply since the early 90s, so it's not just this year that it's a big hit. It is currently at its all time high, though, so that's what you're picking up on.

By Coll
November 18, 2008 12:29 PM

Blythe, fascinating! I don't think the rise of Aidan is related to Sex and the City (or, at least not the initial rise). That character doesn't appear until season three which aired in 2000 (I just googled it--I don't have an encyclodedic knowledge of SaTC). I suspect the character being given that name was more a symptom of the name's sudden appeal on the coasts (in the communities where the writers probably lived) rather than the other way around. I'm sure he did popularize it even more--and directly led to the Hayden, Jayden, Kaydens we know. Joy.

I've read the Twilight books, but I didn't even think of them when I suggested Jasper. I just love that name so much and I'll never get to use it! (Unless I have 5 sons and just wear my husband down) Esme is decidedly a minor presence in those books, so I wouldn't be put off by that. If you named your kids Edward and Bella, then I would have to object.

By J&H's mom (not verified)
November 18, 2008 1:36 PM

Oh, gosh, I've been suggesting Esme and Jasper forever!

I had the typical nerdy girl crush on all things Salinger as a teenager, and I've loved the name Esme since I read that story, "For Esme with Love and Squalor."
Jasper, believe it or not, was my grandfather's mn. Poor guy got Marion as his first! Now, I've only ever met one Jasper irl, but we talk about it so much on this blog, that I've fallen a bit out of love with it.

I know it's conventional for some, but I'm loving Esme with Theo. Enzo is also adorable, though.
Sorry-that was no help!

Melissa C-We know many Lilys, but most are actually older-like 4 or 5.

November 18, 2008 1:56 PM

Blythe-That was fascinating! I took some time to look at some other names.

Bryson(b)(HI-1984)stays ONLY there until(SC-1998)and spreads slowly across the Southeast.

Skyler(b)(UT-1984)stays on and off in Upper West until 2001 where it occurs in VT. Dissappears, then reappears ONLY in VT in 2004. 2005 in WY+VT and 2006 in VT.
Sage(f) follows a similarly weird pattern.

Riley(f) popular in all states EXCEPT UT and HI in 2007.

So any theories about THESE??

By Elizabeth in Canada (not verified)
November 18, 2008 2:49 PM

Re: Esmé and Jasper

We'll see what happens after November 21 when the Twilight movie is released, but the books are already all over the place and having read them, I do NOTICE that Esmé and Jasper are both characters, but it's not overwhelmingly obvious. As Coll mentioned, unless you were to go with Edward and Isabella/Bella, I wouldn't be overly concerned if you love the names. And in terms of the characters, Esmé would be much more obviously a fan choice with Carlisle, and Jasper with Alice.

Personally, living in western Canada, Jasper is much more a beautiful place name to me than anything else.

By Aybee (not verified)
November 18, 2008 3:06 PM

Been meaning to post about this -- goes to a topic we had discussed earlier about names determining personality, or one's personality defining the way we feel about his/her name--

I was watching Jon and Kate Plus Eight, the TLC show about a family with twins and sextuplets.(Am I the only one here who watches TLC child shows for the names!??)
The parents mentioned that the sextuplets had to be named as soon as they were born, because the doctors needed to immediately begin work on them. So the parents 3 favorite boys names and 3 favorite girls names were assigned to babies in alphabetical order according to birth order:

(Not sure on spelling)


It was interesting hearing the parents talking about how, know knowing their 3 of 4 year old children, it worked out perfectly because Joel would have been the wrong name for Collin and so on. I found it fascinating!

By KRC (not verified)
November 18, 2008 3:22 PM

Robin (at least I think it was Robin!), my favorite nickname for Katharina is Nina. Katharina is beautiful and I love the full name with no nickname too.

I have not read the Twilight books although every single one of my friends from college is currently reading them and so is everyone on facebook! I would probably be wary of naming my twins two names from that series. I love love love Esme. I think Enzo is way too matchy but love Esme and Milo or Esme and Nico. I also like Esme and Jude or Esme and August, for a slightly different style.

November 18, 2008 3:55 PM

Aybee: Where did you hear that about Jon & Kate? (I am an avid fan.) I think the spelling is Aaden.

By Delia (not verified)
November 18, 2008 3:57 PM

Aybee - I also watch that show. I thought I'd point out that they spell Aaden like this, which I've wondered about. Also, the twins are named Cara and Madelyn nn Mady.