When Names Were Heroes

Jun 22nd 2011

We don't name babies to honor people any more.

Yes, that's too sweeping a statement. You're probably dredging up examples right now to prove me wrong. But on a broad, societal level it's dramatically true -- a sweeping statement to represent a sweeping change.

It can be hard to appreciate the change, because we don't realize just how standard homage names were in generations past. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, politicians, military leaders and all manner of inspiring individuals could count on a bevy of namesakes. Today? Let's take a look.

The 2008 election saw the historic election of America's first black president. As you might expect, this event was commemorated in names. Approximately 60 more babies were named Barack or Obama than the year before. How big a deal was that? Well, it means hero naming for the new president accounted for .00001 percent of babies born, or one in every 71,000. Neither Barack nor Obama ranked among America's top 2,000 names for boys. In other words, the effect was so trivially small that you would never notice it unless you went searching for it. Recent presidents with more familiar names, like Clinton, fared even worse on the name charts.

Now roll back the clock to the presidential election of 1896. Democrat William Jennings Bryan inspired a dramatic jump in the names Jennings and Bryan. Those jumps accounted for one in every 2,400 babies born  -- an effect 30 times bigger than Obama's. It was enough to rank both names in the top 300 for the year. And in case your American history is a little shaky: Bryan lost the election.

This isn't an anomaly. Generations' worth of presidential losers past inspired more namesakes than triumphant new presidents do today. The likes of James Blaine, Alton Parker and Charles Hughes were baby-name stylemakers back in the days when names were, routinely, heroes.

Presidents are just the tip of the iceberg. How about new vice presidents? Yep, plenty of them. Adlai Stevenson's VP nod in 1892, for instance, prompted a big spike in baby Adlais. Military leaders? You bet. The name Pershing made the top 1000 for three years running after World War I, but that's too easy. Try Schley, a hot name in 1898. (A gold star if you recall the controversy over credit for the Battle of Santiago de Cuba between Commodore Schley and Rear Admiral Sampson.) Cultural icons? Sure, the death of opera singer Enrico Caruso sent the name Enrico to its all-time high in 1921.

In short, almost anyone you could stand up and cheer for prior to WWII inspired baby name homages. And every one of the individuals mentioned in the paragraph above outpaced President Obama in the namesake wars.

Thoughts on the significance of this change in naming practices tomorrow... Continue to part 2.




June 22, 2011 10:36 AM


No, people don't name their kids after political notables any more. They name them after actors and the characters they play instead. It's hard for me to imagine that Khloe Kardashian is a hero to anyone, but she's apparently a hero to those who name their girls Khloe. They're still names "in honor of".

June 22, 2011 10:51 AM

I have two lines of thinking on this so I will have to wait and see which one matches Laura's take better but here they are:
#1-There is a wider name pool these days so things like Regan, Clinton, and Palin don't seem like a big deal to new parents compared to a century ago when William, George, and Abraham seemed to need a little freshening.
#2-Today's heroes aren't what they used to be. Today's presidents sleep around and don't come up with sweeping global policies that change the entire country for the better (yes I'm generalizing). Also, people are more homebodies and TV hounds than they were centuries ago when they were out farming their fields and talking about the days events while making quilts.

By Kristen R. (not verified)
June 22, 2011 11:26 AM

I think we might have seen a much bigger leap if both "Barack" and "Obama" weren't almost unusable names in the U.S.

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
June 22, 2011 11:43 AM

I agree with Zoerhenne that political figures aren't seen as flawless anymore. Were they infallible then? Absolutely not, but they seemed that way, thanks to the way information moved and what was allowed to be revealed. I don't think Barack is an unusable name at all, but I do think that many who would have liked to have honoured him (remember when he was like a rock star?) are also savvy enough to have a wait-and-see attitude, for better or worse.

And I think the Viet Nam War and the 1960s changed how we see military leaders. Wars seems a lot more complicated than WWII and earlier.

By C G D H (not verified)
June 22, 2011 12:02 PM

I think I have to agree with ClaireP. Is this an issue of people not naming their children after notable public figures? Or an issue of a profound change in our collective understanding of who counts as a notable public figure? I live in Boston, and there are a passel of little Jacobys running around here. Jacoby is barely in the top 500 nationally, but it's a top 100 name in Massachusetts when the Red Sox are doing well.

June 22, 2011 12:31 PM

Claire wrote: "No, people don't name their kids after political notables any more. They name them after actors and the characters they play instead. It's hard for me to imagine that Khloe Kardashian is a hero to anyone, but she's apparently a hero to those who name their girls Khloe. They're still names "in honor of."

Ah, more on this tomorrow! Celebrity names aren't new, and I think even they are being used less "in honor of..."

June 22, 2011 12:34 PM

Kristen wrote: "I think we might have seen a much bigger leap if both "Barack" and "Obama" weren't almost unusable names in the U.S."

I tried to address that a bit with the "Clinton" comment...recent "usable" names like Carter, Reagan and Clinton received nothing like the huge boost the ungainly Roosevelt got when Theodore Roosevelt took office.

June 22, 2011 1:05 PM

Wow, even Harding received a boost.

I'd imagine that the current trend of looking for a new and innovative name--something to stand out from the crowd--drives the loss of honorific names. You can't be new and refer to the old.

June 22, 2011 1:19 PM

I was just looking at some older names and noting their rankings from 1880-2010. I wonder why George (as in Washington) was ranked as high as 4 but Abraham (as in Lincoln) never made it out of the 190's. Thomas (as in Jefferson) got to 8. Things that make you go hmmm.....

By Paula (not verified)
June 22, 2011 1:28 PM

About a year ago, I ran into some people in Petsmart (a pet supplies super store) who had a DOG named Barack after the president!!!!

I was born 37 days after JFK's assassination, and clearly remember being in school with lots of Jackies (female) and Jacquelines. At the time I didn't make the connection, but it's certainly been obvious in the years since, knowing how popular JFK's wife was as First Lady.

I live in Tennessee, and name Peyton (as in Manning!) is VERY popular here!

At the Grand Ole Opry recently, watching the Oak Ridge Boys on stage, I had to wonder how many serious Oak Ridge Boys fans over the years might have named their dogs, cats, or maybe even their human kids names like "Elvira" and "Bobbie Sue"!

By mk (not verified)
June 22, 2011 1:56 PM

I have many friends who are naming their children after people who inspired them, but on a more personal level (relative, teacher, etc). If I had children, I would do the same. So names are still being used to honor people, just maybe not politicians. And who can blame anyone, really, considering our current political (and even celebrity) culture?

On the other hand, Barack may not have increased, but both Malia and Sasha had a spike the year Obama became president. So maybe people are still honoring politicians, just in less obvious ways?

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
June 22, 2011 2:44 PM

I don't think you can assume that all Georges were named after Washington. Hasn't it been a common name for a long, long time? Best to look at Washington itself. http://www.babynamewizard.com/voyager#prefix=washington&ms=false&exact=false

I also agree with MK that culturally, our heros are different now--more personal in nature.

I'm really looking forward to the second part of this post!

By Pamela S (not verified)
June 22, 2011 2:53 PM

Too many of our politicians prove to be grave disappointments. I wouldn't name anything or anyone after any political leader until after they are long dead and anything that could be stirred up has been stirred up and exposed. I think anyone would be a fool to name a child after Obama, who was pushed out of oblivion onto the scene by an over-zealous, even worshipful, media. He will prove to be more disappointing than most to any but the most glassy-eyed worshipers.

June 22, 2011 3:18 PM

I think Linnaeus hit the nail on the head when he wrote "You can't be new and refer to the old." In raw numbers, all names are falling in popularity. People are striving to be unique (but not TOO unique, hence Khloe or Kloey instead of Chloe), which means they're less likely to bestow easily recognizable names on their children.

But I think there is a larger cultural point to be made about the way we view public figures. We have an absolute fascination for them (witness the popularity of magazines like "Us" and "People") while we love to tear them down at the same time.

These two trends--naming style plus celebrity worship and bashing--have combined to ensure that fewer children are being named Petreus, Biden, and Palin.

By Eustace (again) (not verified)
June 22, 2011 3:56 PM

I think Elizabeth T. nailed it. And so we name after personal heroes (family) instead.

Thanks, everyone, for your help with Samuel. I do feel better about it after this discussion. And Laura made me comment of the week! I'm famous!

By Jane 6 (not verified)
June 22, 2011 7:02 PM

I think it reflects a change in the media of today. Every foible of every political figure is exposed, then commented on endlessly on the 24 hour news cycle. Even when the media would like to turn a blind eye to a leader's faults (like when Edwards was cheating on his dying wife, and no one wanted to cover it), it comes out anyway. Roosevelt had multiple affairs, Lincoln was clinically depressed, but no one knew it *at the time.*
You aren't going to name your kid after such a flawed person. That's why smart people name their kids after characters in novels or movies or even video games instead. They're fixed.

People don't name their kids to *honor* celebrities. They name their kids celebrity names because they *sound* glamorous. The name brings to mind exotic locals, blinding beauty, rich accessories, love, etc. ...

June 22, 2011 8:07 PM

YAG-I wasn't trying to suggest that all George's were named after Washington. I just found it interesting that Abraham never made it past the 190's. And Jane6-do they really?

June 22, 2011 9:46 PM

@Eustace (again): I missed the conversation about Samuel on the earlier post, but just wanted you to know that I felt exactly the same when I named my son Samuel 10 years ago. It has turned out to be an absolutely perfect name for him.

@CGDH -- Did you notice that Jacoby is "Name of the Day " here on BabyNameWizard.com today?

By I don't remember my name (not verified)
June 23, 2011 12:17 AM

I think it is rather sad that there are so few cultural heroes, people that anyone can hold up and everybody say "I'd like my child to be like that!" We even have documentaries dredging up any possible dirt (real and false) on historical heroes.

By Leahbfc (not verified)
June 23, 2011 9:12 AM

I definitely agree that we just have different heroes for the most part. People name kids after athletes and entertainers, not politicians. I think even more people name kids after loved family members or friends, which to me is far more noble than naming after a politician. I definitely think that our culture of scandals plays into it heavily as well. I certainly wouldn't want to have named a kid after Clinton right before the Lewinsky scandal came out! It's much safer to name kids after dead famous people than living ones - living personal relatives are safer too, though neither is every perfectly safe (look at Thomas Jefferson!).

By Amy3
June 23, 2011 10:43 AM

I think the title of the post says it all - "when names were heroes." Now it seems many parents conceive of "names as brands." In a world with many more people and an overwhelming amount of information, more people seek to stand out rather than blend in.

By justpupsfornow (not verified)
June 23, 2011 11:46 AM

I've been MIA for some time busily preparing for the arrival of our first (some lurking but little/no posts;) but now that I'm out of work and twiddling my thumbs til he gets here I'll second mk and Pamela that our politicians today don't inspire tributes!

Funny enough, the name we're going with for our little guy is Beckett Eamon which met our general criteria for strong and strongly Irish (/English/American), nice flow and alliteration with our Irish last name, and more unique than not. More specifically, great Becketts (though all surnames) exist in the playwright Samuel, the Catholic Archbishop, saint and martyr Thomas, and yes, of Red Sox pitching fame, Josh. All of these famous Becketts were taken into consideration as not being bad connotations to us, more than actively being tributes. The middle name however is a tribute to a special kind of politician who no longer exists, at least not in America, Eamon de Valera, revolutionary and president of Ireland from 1959-73.

June 23, 2011 3:12 PM

This post is so true, in my family! My grandfather, born election day 1896, was given the middle name Bryan for William Jennings Bryan. His son and grandson also got the middle name Bryan. The great-grandson, first name Bryan, knew it was a family name, but didn't realize he was named for the (losing!) politician until he was 20. Good to know he's part of a social trend :)

By The North Face (not verified)
July 2, 2011 4:51 AM

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By Lysis (not logged in) (not verified)
July 3, 2011 4:09 PM

Whoa, what is going on here? First, the Allison blog post goes missing, then a few people comment about its dissaperance on this post, and now those comments are missing. Laura, if you are going to delete a whole post, your loyal followers should at least get an explanation, not deletion.

By bryanah (not verified)
July 18, 2011 10:30 PM

Hi everyone , my name is bryanah and i am 14. I tend to disagree because i just think its the style of the name. Some people think differently than others and may have a different thought on this or that name. Now i live in memphis TN and never have i heard a Barack or a Khloe. Well, i have heard khloe but those people are like 16 and 20 something of age . I dont think there parents wanted to name them after Khloe Kardashian.I think you may be retaining to the younger mothers who are like 14-18.All of the parents who are like 25-any other age older, their childs name maybe named after a president or somone in the world war 2 or any hero of any kind.I just think its because this is a new generation and it is growing and changing soooo nothing will always be the same.

By TBW (not verified)
July 23, 2011 1:15 PM

Here in San Diego, there seems to be an abundance of Trevor's in honor of all-time major league saves leader Trevor Hoffman.

By tamiasmin (not verified)
July 23, 2011 5:54 PM

Numbers are tedious and treacherous things, I know, but 1 in 71,000 is not .00001 percent. It is either .00001 [no percent] or .001 percent or, a little more exactly, .0014, since 1 percent is already .01.

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