Of Names and Politics: The Palin Story

Sep 3rd 2008

It's an unprecedented event in American political history.  Never before has a vice-presidential selection caused such a stir, such a surprise...with her children's names.

In fact, no naming event has ever filled my inbox with as many reader queries as the unveiling of Sarah Palin--mom to Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig--as John McCain's running mate.  "Any comment?"  "I've never heard Trig as a name for anything but a math class."  "Is this 'an Alaska thing'?'"

In a way, yes, it is "an Alaska thing."  If you had nothing to go on but the baby names and had to guess about who the parents were, you'd guess that that they lived in an idiosyncratic, sparsely populated region of the country...and that they were conservative Republicans.

When I divided the U.S. map into name style regions, Alaska was a mix of two styles: Frontier and Creative Fringe.  Frontier naming regions include the Mountain West and the Appalachians.  The typical Creative Fringe state is a world unto itself in history and culture, like Hawaii or Utah.  Alaska is a natural blend of the two.

Frontier names, especially for girls, lean toward nature names and androgynous surnames/place names.  That would cover Bristol, Willow and Piper.  Creative Fringe names include new word-based names, elaborate, romantic names, and well, the creative fringe.  Neologisms are rampant, from Nevaeh to Track.

But there's more.  One reader noted, "Palin is an evangelical Christian, yet there is not a biblical name in the bunch."  It's a telling observation.

For the past two decades, a core set of "cultural conservative" opinions has served as a theoretical dividing line between "red" (Republican/conservative) and "blue" (Democratic/liberal) America.  These incude attitudes toward sex roles, the centrality of Christianity in culture, and a social traditionalism focused on patriotism and the family.  If you were to translate that divide into baby names it might place a name like Peter—classic, Christian, masculine—on one side, staring down an androgynous pagan newcomer like Dakota on the other.  In fact, that does describe the political baby name divide quite accurately.  But it describes it backwards.

Characteristic blue state names: Angela, Catherine, Henry, Margaret, Mark, Patrick, Peter and Sophie.

Characteristic red state names: Addison, Ashlyn, Dakota, Gage, Peyton, Reagan, Rylee and Tanner.

Even when biblical names are trendy in conservative, Christian-focused communities, they're typically not the classic names of Christian tradition.  They're Old Testament names that summon up a pioneer style with an exotic flair, often with a modern spelling twist.  Names like Malachi, Levi and Kaleb are hot in Alaska, while names like John and Elizabeth rule in liberal Washington D.C.

Why is it the blue parents who name with red values?  Because in baby naming as in so many parts of life, style, not values, is the guiding light.  The most liberal and conservative parts of the country differ on key style-shaping variables, like income, education level, and the age when women marry and have children.  A community where the typical first-time mother is a 22-year-old high-school grad is going to have a very different style climate from the community where the typical new mom is a 28-year-old with a college degree.  When you factor in the creative-naming effect that comes with remote and ideosyncratic regions, you get a neo-naming explosion.


p.s. If you're interested in regional naming differences, look for much more here soon!

Comments

301
By Jennifer (not verified)
September 9, 2008 12:21 PM

Carly, Miriam--

You are both quite correct (and "top-out-of-sight" can only be a reference to Paul Fussell, whom I adore!); the set I was describing are the hyper-educated privileged, many of whom do have a bit of family money but are largely self-made. There is an entire social stratosphere above us that has absolutely nothing to do with income levels (I'd put the dot-com billionaires, the venture capital tycoons, etc in our same social class, even though their net worth is orders of magnitude above ours).

Their naming choices are harder to pin down, but I can assure you they don't try very hard or worry very much about it. They're just as likely to name the child Coco or Elizabeth or Stavratina-- whatever pops into their heads at the time. Obviously, the child's future is not going to be determined by their first name, but by their *last*.

302
By DelinaRose (not verified)
September 9, 2008 12:24 PM

Can't Decide -- I like Ivy Elise best as a stand alone name, but for the sib set, I think that Ivy Rose flows best. However, since she probably won't introduce herself as one of a sib set very often (i.e. Hello, we are Ruby Gwynn*th, Lyl* M*e, Mi* Cinn*mon, and Ivy Rose), I cast my vote for Ivy Elise. As for Elise Rose, I really don't like the flow at all. To me, both of those names end almost abruptly without a vowel to soften them. Independently, I like them both a great deal, but back to back they seem choppy to me. Anyways, good luck and do let us know what you decide.

LD -- I actually just asked my DH about this name yesterday, and I got a swift and resounding no! He immediately referenced 'Miss Cleo' and couldn't get past it. So I hope you do use it, since, alas, I cannot. I do prefer Cleo, as it seems to have more weight to me. I think I like Cleo Harmony best out of your choices, althogh it's NMS. I don't particularly like the rhythm of Cleo Martha or Cleo Bronte--I would rather see a two syllable name with the empahsis on the 2nd syllable or a three syllable name (e.g. Cleo Magdalene). For me, Cleo Beth is too cutsey, and Cleo Liza and Cleo Elsa are a bit heavy on the 'l' sound. Just my opinion though. Let us know when she's born and what you choose for her.

Also, regarding similar sibling names, my friend's father named her Yvette Donelle and her twin sister Yvonne Marcelle...that's way too close for my tastes. And I don't think Yvette liked it very much either. ;-)

303
By Isabella Washington (not verified)
September 9, 2008 12:25 PM

As another Ivy Leaguer, I agree with some parts of Jennifer's posts, but not with the idea that there is a deliberate "we're better than you" feeling. I think wanting your child's name to fit in with whatever group you're in is natural. Also, isn't it possible that we honestly LIKE the names we give our children, and that perhaps, from spending years studying literature or history or whatever, we have grown fond of names or people we came across?

I'm not saying that no one is deliberately trying to show superiority with their baby names, but I can say that for myself, and for my similarly-educated family members and friends, there is no such intention!

304
By Jenny (not verified)
September 9, 2008 12:33 PM

Can't decide,

I vote Ivy Elise too! I think that sounds quite nice together. I think Ivy Rose would work though if your dh is set on Rose as the mn. It depends on the family, but I feel like my middle name is never used for anything but official documents that no one sees. Or if I feel like sharing it with people I like... so I doubt the two plant thing will be a big problem.

Re: Cleo, I definitely vote that spelling, for some reason it looks more complete to me. None of the mn's are really my style, but I think Cleo Harmony flows the best when said.

Good luck to both of you!

305
By ABC (not verified)
September 9, 2008 12:53 PM

I know a dot-com multi-millionaire who has children called Heather, Hanson and Hunter. I guess he wants to signal that he loves the letter "H".

306
By Lillie (not verified)
September 9, 2008 1:23 PM

I thought I'd put together a list of babies and little kids I knew while I was in Alaska (three years). As you can see, an Alaska top 10 list doesn't signify much if there is THIS much naming diversity ... and it's not just anecdotal -- I read the birth announcements and there were always tons of unusual picks.

Girls:
Haven
Harper
Meggie and Laurel
Beatrix (Trixie)
Josephine (Josie)
Adelaide (Adi)
Kai
Claudia
Kyah, Zeah and Nola

Hazel and Blaze (boy and girl)
Aaron, Emily, Rosie (the one "ordinary" family!)

Boys:
Kai
Paxson
Kash
Hayden
Corbin
Logan

307
By Carly (not verified)
September 9, 2008 1:36 PM

@ can't decide - I still prefer Ivy Elise, and agree with the sentiment that Ivy Rose is a little too botanical. How does Ivy Roselise strike you & your hubby?

Also, I'm sure you've already thought of this - I'd encourage you to run your final selections by someone familiar with the local parlance just to make sure the names won't subject your little one to ridicule.

@LD - I prefer Cleo Bronte - though NMS. I also thought of t.v. fortuneteller Miss Cleo, but recalled that Cleo was not her real name, and she was actually from Los Angeles. Best wishes!

@Jennifer- Yes, a Fussell reference indeed!

I see that Laura has a new post up, so I will catch you all on the new thread.

308
By Chee Chee (not verified)
September 9, 2008 5:37 PM

MIRIAM:

OH thanks for telling me about Nevada and Zebedee and Madelon-- now I won't be so afraid to do those names. Although, I am leaning more toward Zebediah rather than Zebedee. I'm glad to see that Zebediah was mentioned in an earlier post!

COLL:

I'm so tired of that name Sophia. I mean it works when you need a name and who can resist that yummy PH and that IA. I like it spelled with the PH rathen than the F. It is just way too popular now (especially in West Hartford, CT). It's like playing it too safe or like just naming a child a popular name just so it can fit in-- even AT BIRTH! Sophia is one of those names, to me, that all nationalities have picked up on and I guess that is the charm about it. When you see this name, you can't tell what nationality the person is (well maybe if there is a surname shown). When I was younger, I always thought of Sophia as more of an Italian name and I was shocked to find out that I had a southern cousin (African-American) with this name, so now I see it as a name with a southern flair.

People I think should go with Summer if they are thinking about Sophia. Maybe Summer Sophia. Summer is my top girl name and the one I'm doing that when I have a girl.

309
By Zoerhenne (not verified)
September 9, 2008 8:21 PM

can't decide-I am posting just a few more names I thought of after retiring to bed last night.
Trinity Elise or
Ivy Callista; Ivy Calliope

I will also post on the new thread in case this one is not being read anymore.

310
By Beth (not verified)
September 9, 2008 11:33 PM

Gracious me. I just got back from a 2 week internet-free vacation. But:

hyz, congratulations and welcome back! Minna Ivy is lovely, in name and in person.

Eo, you DO have latent blue-state tendencies, hee hee. Watch out, you might accidentally push the Obama lever.

Jennifer seems to be that rare breed of persons who can make fun of herself. I'm in the tribe she lovingly mocks, and I laughed and laughed. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the "educated elite" often don't come from super-wealth, so we're often self-made snobs. It took me YEARS to figure out what my Ph.D.'d mother meant by "not our class, dear," which she said wryly but also meaningfully: it was applied to all things flashy with wealth, trendy, super-artsy, and with less than a college degree. I think it was her armor against our almost poverty-level standard of living. I'm not defending it, I'm just saying. I'm probably the most conservative namer on here (and super-lefty), though I love others' adventurousness. For naming my actual kids, only the names of British kings and queens seem to do. And Jennifer nailed it.

I'm voting for Ivy Elise. Had I escaped the destiny of family names, I would jump on it, faux nobility be da**ed.

On Sarah Palin: those names made me need an aspirin. To me they are a thicket of hideous consonants, with the exception of Piper and Willow, who sound like characters in a young adult novel. But I loved Laura's diagnosis.

My captcha says "Sacrifice Shriner." Huhh?

311
By Auntie Beth (not verified)
September 10, 2008 1:23 AM

LD: In case you're still reading this thread and haven't moved on to the new one, I'd like to chime in that I like the name Cleo, but, like someone else who posted, I find Clio too close to anatomical for my comfort.

I knew a Cleo once, and she was a woman of great wit and style, and that likely influenced my opinion of it, although for some reason I also picture a little girl in black cat costume at Halloween. Do you suppose there is a pop cultural reference there that I'm blanking on, or am I simply seriously in need of sleep? :)

312
By Maria Townsend (not verified)
September 11, 2008 10:25 PM

What do you expect of her, she uses the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator to name her kids! http://www.personal-space.com/palin

313
By Guest (not verified)
September 13, 2008 10:26 AM

Hello,

Ok so this isnt really what this blog is about BUT.. I am 6.5 months pregnant and my husband and I are highly thinking of Naming our little Girl Palin Marie. what do any of you think of that?

314
By notemily (not verified)
September 13, 2008 3:02 PM

I love this site. I thought I'd add my two cents as they say.
I'm white, Protestant, born in the red state south, living in Washington DC, with a MA in English. My husband is a midwestern Catholic with a law degree. I teach at an independent school filled with the kids of Jennifer's cohorts (her entry was great!). The most popular name for boys at my school is William. Katherine/Kate (all variations) is far and away the most popular girls'. Katherine suprised me a little. Isabelle, Charlotte, and Sophia/Sophie are tied for second - no suprise there. We also have two Westons in one grade, and quite a few last names first that I assume are family names. At a school where I taught before we had a poor little girl named Nelson.

I don't have any children yet, but I'm concerned that many of the names I like are too popular - Elizabeth, Abigail, Andrew..... Maybe I should move back to a red state before having babies.

315
By Missy (not verified)
September 14, 2008 2:34 PM

Maybe his name is Trigger, like in the Hunter, Gunner vein

316
By Heather (not verified)
September 15, 2008 5:02 AM

"A community where the typical first-time mother is a 22-year-old high-school grad is going to have a very different style climate from the community where the typical new mom is a 28-year-old with a college degree. "

Are you going to cover this at some point (or perhaps you already have...?)?

317
By Guest (not verified)
September 16, 2008 5:40 PM

I really like the name Dax. What do you all think?
My husband likes short snappy names & I like names that will be a little unique.
Any other ideas?

318
By Guest (not verified)
September 17, 2008 4:37 PM

I am a wyoming girl so obviously we are republicans. We are needing names badly we cant agree on anything.

We want our child to have a unique name but not super crazy. I have a very common name for my age and everywhere I went to school or worked someone else had my name. It drives me crazy.

Any ideas are appreciated.

319
By Jade (not verified)
September 17, 2008 4:38 PM

Dax is nice. I like Bynson, Maddox, Kayde,Gage. Just thoughts

320
By Amanda E. (not verified)
September 19, 2008 10:54 AM

I do think you may have hit the nail on the head with this post, but I would like to remind everyone that these are just generalizations and not necessarily the rule for everyone, or even the vast majority.

I, myself, was born and raised in Kentucky, graduated high school, attended college, and received my bachelor's degree (graduating early,) as did my husband (who is presently in medical school). We did get married early at 21 after graduating, and we do plan on having children before we are 25.

I think it may be a bit much to imply that most southerners are lucky to even finish high school, although I will agree there is a definite tendency to marry and have children earlier. My parents actually waited until their thirties to have children and unfortunately realized they were unable to conceive after 34---this is the primary reason why my husband and I have decided not to wait.

As for names, we are thinking about a few rare options (Giselle, Ada, Lila, Daphne, Landon) or possibly a family name with unique spelling (Glynn, Callaghan).

321
By Katharine (not verified)
September 20, 2008 1:22 PM

Great post Laura, incredibly thought provoking. It's been months since I've visited your blog and I've clearly been missing out! Congratulations to Hyz on the birth of Minna Ivy, a beautiful name for a gorgeous little girl...

322
By baby names meanings (not verified)
October 1, 2008 3:41 PM

I know what you mean...theres so much fuss about Sarah Palin and the baby names she's chosen.

323
By Guest (not verified)
October 4, 2008 11:32 PM

Technically for the record Laquan is not a made up name. It is African and it means "The quiet one". It is actually a nice name. But then again it is all in the opinion of the person.

324
By Guest (not verified)
October 4, 2008 11:34 PM

Technically for the record Laquan is not a made up name. It is African and it means "The quiet one". It is actually a nice name. But then again it is all in the opinion of the person.

325
By Greg Z (not verified)
October 6, 2008 12:01 PM

My wife and I named our daughter Helena because we each had a grandmother named Helen. We, too, had trouble agreeing on which of the three pronunciations to use. We believe that the full name should be considered - how the first name rolls into the last name. We decided to pronounce it Huh-LEE-na and call her Lena for short (an increasingly popular name in Europe).

326
By Guest (not verified)
November 7, 2008 11:41 AM

I am a blue state liberal, but I (we) named my mixed race children (half chinese, half Irish) Joseph, Christopher, and Sean. (my wife chose Sean) They also have Chinese names for when they visit their grandparents in China. My wife chose those. Very astute observations. My Childrens' names are traditional and biblical. I could never imagine a name like Kyle or Hunter, much less Track. Too flighty.

327
By Guest (not verified)
December 30, 2008 5:01 PM

my new name is Drill Swollen Palin

328
By Guest (not verified)
December 30, 2008 5:02 PM

Maybe Swollen Drill Palin is better????

329
By Guest (not verified)
February 4, 2009 7:31 PM

Hi everyone.

For those who asked where the Palin's childrens names were derived from, after searching the internet, here is what I found:

Track - Named because of Sarah Palin's love for running. In high school, she was in TRACK & Field and her father was the coach.

Bristol - Named after Alaska's BRISTOL Bay. One of the Palin's favorite spots in Alaska.

Willow - Not quite sure about this one. Some sites say she is named after a town in Alaska, named WILLOW.

Piper - Named after Todd Palin's 1958 PIPER sea plane.

Trig Paxson - TRIG is a Norse word meaning "true" and "victory". PAXSON is in reference to a well known snow-mobiling area in Alaska, that Todd and Sarah like.

I think that they are beautiful names. I find it neat that their names all relate to personal places and things in the Palin's life. And you can definitely see that they love Alaska.

330
By Zoran (not verified)
March 13, 2009 11:12 PM

Agreed.

331
April 3, 2009 12:16 PM

This is really interesting. My husband grew up in Anchorage. I grew up in San Francisco bay area. My dad grew up in SF bay area also, my mom in Wyoming. My husband's mom grew up in Boston (and was part of the Woodstock/flower child movement in her youth) and his dad grew up in wild Alaska (soon after it became a state). So we definitely have the Red vs. Blue thing going on with us, and both sides of the family. As a result we both have very balance names: Rachel and Benjamin. I tend to like the "blue names" as I grew up in the bluest area of the country. I live in the reddest of red states now! I used to like Piper and Josiah, but there was something 'off' about them. I was kind of turned off by the name Piper after Palin came onto the national stage. I like balanced names like me and my husband's names.

332
April 3, 2009 12:34 PM

Also- I've totally noticed the difference in names here in the red state I now live in. When I first started my current job, I met a Marshawn (female), Rae, Barth, Tonja (Ton-JA, not Tonya) Misty. Me and my husband both have college degrees, and he has his masters. I'm a moderate liberal, he's a moderate conservative, and we both have a deep religious faith. I prefer more solid names, that I feel will take them farther along in life. Right now I like 'old-fashioned' names that are uncommon but not unheard of:

Lucy
Alice
Chloe
Ivy
Esme
----------
Jasper
Noah
Moses
Thomas
Jack

My sister likes Abraham, Roman, Daphne, Isabella, and Audrey.

I'm going for balanced/traditional, but fresh. Any thoughts?

333
April 3, 2009 12:40 PM

Isabella Washington-

I agree that perhaps parents with a higher education prefer certain names because of their literary/historical origin. Names that sound established, but also have character. You don't run into Ashlyns and Connors in much literature/history.

335
By Mike Shamwow (not verified)
August 28, 2009 10:10 PM

Wow, very interesting article, thanks. Remember, the names we give our children will always make a statement and reflect who we are. More importantly its a name our children will have to live with all their lives. As responsible parents, we should always choose carefully. Sadly, some of us are discriminated against solely by the name given to us at birth, not by the content of our character.

shamwow

336
By Dog traing books (not verified)
May 14, 2011 5:46 AM

Laura, Thank you so much for this post. I too am a devout Christian and I really feel stong about the points you have touched on. I end by saying again "Thank You!"

337
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