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!


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