Willard, and the Truth About Celebrity Baby Name Trends

Sep 20th 2012

In a discussion of current events, the name Willard Mitt Romney came up. "Where does a name like Willard even come from?" I was asked. "Why did people ever name their kids that?" The answer should sound familiar to anyone who follows today's baby name trends: it was the convergence of style and celebrity.

Willard comes from the Old English and Germanic roots will (will, desire) + hard (hardy, strong, brave). That pattern is familiar from names like Richard and Bernard (ric meant power, ber meant bear.) But Willard wasn't a particularly well-known name until the great ARD uprising of the 1910s. Take a look at what happened to boys' names ending in -ard during that decade:

Between 1911 and 1921, the number of American boys receiving an -ard name rose sixfold. Richard was the single biggest riser, taking its place as one of the core names of the 20th century. But among the less-established names, none gained more than Willard:

Pretty dramatic, eh? What does it take to make a name soar like that? Obviously, Willard's sound was cutting-edge cool. The popular nickname Willie also gave Willard a leg up on alternatives like Millard and Hayward. But the impressive spike in the year 1915 points to an outside factor. As it happens, 1915 was the year "Great White Hope" Jess Willard defeated the black boxing champion Jack Johnson to take the world heavyweight title.

Yes, Willard was a celebrity name. You can see Jess Willard's influence starting with a smaller spike in 1912, when the boxer fought his first marquee bouts and captured the public's imagination with his giant stature. (Willard's 6' 6.5" frame was extraordinary for the time.) His defeat of the legendary Johnson made him a bona fide national sensation.

The 1915 Willard surge utterly dwarfs the rise of many recent "hot celebrity names" like Miley and Maddox. At the time, though, it was little noted. That's just what happened with names of celebrities and heroes back then. Consider that in the first two years of Shirley Temple's fame, the number of girls named Shirley rose by an amount representing 2.5% of all female births. Today, the most popular name in America, Sophia, accounts for just 1.1% of girls born.

And yet, the public perception is that celebrity-driven name trends are a contemporary phenomenon, representing a new obsession with fame. I can't count the number of reporters who have asked me to comment on this uniquely modern trend, and what it means. What it mostly means is that we've forgotten the celebrities of the past.

How many of you, reading the name Willard in the title of this post, thought of Jess Willard? The boxer was hugely famous in his time. In addition to his four-year reign as world champion, he also attracted tragic notoriety for killing a man in the ring, and his 1919 championship loss to Jack Dempsey is one of the most famously brutal fights in history. But that was nearly a century ago, and boxing as a sport has nosedived in popularity. Jess Willard is now known only to afficionados, and Willard is no longer seen as a celebrity name.

In short: as long as there have been name trends, celebrities have inspired them. But even thousands of little namesakes aren't enough to make fame endure.


By desh
September 21, 2012 12:11 AM

Well, at least one celebrity liked it!  Harrison Ford named one of his sons (who I guess would now be in his 40s?) from his first marriage Willard. I always wondered what the background on this name was.

September 21, 2012 1:32 AM

Not to mention that Willard was his last name, so there's another popular modern trend.

The whole time I was reading this article, I had a vague image of a man in my head and once I was done and focused on the face, I realized that it was comedian Fred Willard. So it seems that I associate the name with him.

September 21, 2012 12:18 PM

What an interesting story. Willard sounds like a total hick name to me, it's so interesting to think of parents trying to channel a scrappy boxer image by using it.

September 21, 2012 12:30 PM

Interestingly, J. Willard Marriot, for whom Willard Mitt Romney was named, was born in 1900, well before the Jess Willard-inspired spike in the name's popularity.  

September 21, 2012 4:16 PM

I also wanted to add that Will Smith is also a Willard. He even named his fist son after himself and his father.

September 22, 2012 1:52 AM

So anybody know what happened in the late '40s to cause that second spike in -ARD names?  Mitt Romney was born in 1947, so it seems like he was a part of that style surge.

September 22, 2012 2:02 AM

I've always thought it was fitting somehow that Romney shared his name with the 1971 horror movie about the social misfit who loved rats...

September 22, 2012 2:33 AM

I don't know about other -ard names, but the Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery was a major commander of the British Army during WWII (the German forces surrended to him in 1945.) 


September 22, 2012 9:32 AM

@Tirzah: That graph shows raw numbers of births which means that changes in birthrate show up. Because of the post-war baby boom many names show a "spike" then. (On the other hand over the past few years the birthrate has declined, which means that an otherwise steady name would show fewer births than before.) A graph that uses percentages of births wouldn't have that effect.

September 25, 2012 12:50 PM

Can anyone explain why Bernard is accented on the second syllable while all the other -ard names that I can think of are accented on the first?

September 27, 2012 11:06 AM

It's the difference between the Germanic stress rule (stress on the first syllable of the root) and the Romance stress rule (stress on the penultimate/u;timate syllable).  American English often retains the Romance stress in borrowings from French, whereas British English often shifts to the Germanic stress rule.  So in American English it's Ber-NARD, while in British English it's BER-na'd.   This difference applies to relatively recent French borrowings, not to early borrowings.  Richard is one of the great Norman names, and so entered English during the Middle Ages, thus having the shift to Germanic stress.  You can see this stress shift at woirk in such words as Detroit--some American speakers retain the Romance stress (De-TROIT), while others have shifted to Germanic stress (DEE-troit).  In general, for relatively recent French borroowings, American English retains Romance Stress (ga-RAGE), while British English prefers Germanic stress (GA-r'ge). 

September 27, 2012 4:06 PM

Thank you, Miriam, for once again expressing an answer that I knew far better than I could. Another good example is ballet: BA-lay vs. ba-LAY.

And anecdotally, my grandfather, Bernard, pronounces his name BER-nard, so they do exist :)

October 4, 2012 9:04 PM

Also, there's a well know LDS composer from early church history named Willard Richards. There's that connection as well making it a more often heard  name in LDS households.

May 21, 2013 5:34 AM

I'm late to the party, but wanted to comment. My great-grandpa, born in 1903 in Washington state, was named Willard M. B.  He wasn't LDS (though later joined the church).  Then the first born sons for all generations up until the present date were named Willard M. B., in 1930, 1956, and 1986. Some of them ended up going by Bill, or the middle initial. 

It was interested to hear some more information about "Willard".  Since I heard it so much I just assumed it was a less common version of "William", or something. 

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