Watch Political Baby Naming Change Through the Years

Oct 26th 2016


Baby name trends are one of the most sincere reflections of an era's tastes, values and dreams. So what does it mean that we no longer name babies after presidential candidates?

Once upon a time we would have expected this election to yield a bumper crop of baby Trumps and Clintons. Today the idea sounds excessively partisan, or even thoughtless toward the child. In generations past, though, it was routine. Win or lose, a major party nomination regularly turned political surnames into baby names.

I've tracked the election-year impact of the top two candidates in every presidential election since 1884. The chart below shows the change in the number of boys given the candidate's name. Scroll down to watch the times change:

The disappearance of political homage names is clear. On the chart it appears complete by the 1940s, but I believe the real drought started a bit later. First off, the election year chart doesn't reflect a major Truman spike in 1945 when Harry Truman first took office, after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. (Read more: The Hottest names of 1946.) In the 1950s the name Eisenhower was too cumbersome to choose, but the given name* Dwight and even the nickname Ike did rise with President Eisenhower. The real zeroing out of presidential names, first and last, hit in the 1960s.

[* I chose to chart only political surnames because they're a purer signal of homage than given names. Can we really be confident that a William born in 1908 was named in honor of William Howard Taft? And what about the fact that Taft's opponent was also named William? But first names do show the same historical pattern – in many cases, even more dramatically. The election-year boosts to names like Grover (Cleveland), Warren (Harding) and Herbert (Hoover) would dwarf any of the bars on the chart above, while effects of more recent presidential first names are virtually nonexistent.]

As it happens, the 1960s also marked the start of the era of diversity in American baby naming. If you take a look at the shape of the starting graph in the NameVoyager baby name grapher, you'll see a downward slope beginning in the 1960s. That reflects an opening up of our naming culture: a decline in the classic English royal names, and increasing emphasis on standing out rather than fitting in. In theory, that should have made an unconventional politically inspired name an easier sell than in the era when John and Mary ruled the name roost. But parents didn't use their new freedom to choose names like Nixon.

I think the story here is an underlying shift in the very essence of naming. The driving factor behind baby name choices has shifted away from meaning and tradition, and toward style.

Consider that biblical names are also at an all-time historic low. By my calculations, the rate of babies named after their fathers with the suffix Junior has also plummeted over the past two generations. (The rate of later suffixes like IV remains strong, though. Those have more stylistic impact.) Meanwhile the rate of change in name trends has accelerated, and boys' names, which were historically much more tradition-bound than girls', are now thoroughly subject to fashion.

Today, even the most loving granddaughter won't name her baby after an unfashionably named grandparent. It's the same story for ardent political partisans. Add in a healthy dose of post-Watergate cynicism, and political names simply disappear from the equation. As we speak, Republican parents are choosing between Braxton and Ryker — not Donald — for their sons, and Democratic parents are choosing between Hazel and Maeve — not Hillary — for their daughters. And as usual, that's a phenomenon that speaks far beyond baby names.

 

Comments

1
October 27, 2016 7:08 PM

I have long thought that both Clinton and Nixon fit in nicely with the Aidans and other names that end in an -en sound.  Nixon even has an X!  But it is hard to imagine anyone actually using those Presidents.  I'd pick a more neutral Clayton if I wanted the Clinton sound.

2
October 31, 2016 3:01 PM

I'm wondering whether it would be possible to search for combinations of names.  In 1896, William Jennings Bryan's campaign ran a promotion where anyone who wrote in saying they had named their baby after him would get a personalized response from his daughter Ruth (later a U.S. Congresswoman).  Most of the letters he received indicated that people were using various combinations of his three names: Jennings Bryan, Bryan Jennings, William Jennings, William Bryan.  I wonder if checking for those combinations would increase the number of hits you find.

3
By hka
November 1, 2016 1:10 PM

I DO know a baby named for an "unfashionably named" great-grandmother Mildred.  But, I have to add the caveat that her parents really liked the nn Millie.  She's rarely, if ever, called Mildred.

A "political" name that's been on my mind lately is Theodosia.  For the past year or so, a certain not-yet-baby-naming segment of the population has been obsessed with late 18th century politics.  In addition to songs that float around in one's head FOREVER, the name keeps popping up when visiting revolutionary era historical sites.  For instance, the owner of the house Washington used as his 1780 winter headquarters was a Theodosia.  (The tour guide says any female under 25 could care less that Washington slept there.  They want to know which room was Hamilton's.)  Will we see this name start to creep back into the name stats in a few years?  It seems to have a lot of elements that might make it ripe for revival - the popular -a ending; liquid vowels, but balanced with not-too-harsh consonants: nice nicknames (Docia, Theda, Theo - I can see parents embracing Theo as a cute, unisex nn); But, most of all, it sounds both fresh and familiar.  I'm going to keep my eye on this one.

4
November 1, 2016 1:40 PM

Names that could rise next year: Theodosia (ever so slightly, but that wouldn't take much), Schuyler, Angelica and Eliza (but not Peggy), and Hamilton.

5
November 9, 2016 12:53 AM

Carter is a popular name choice for baby boys in my part of the US.  Reagan is very popular with new baby girls. Also Ford and Kennedy are heard.  Forget anyone naming their son Cox or Dukakis.  Horrid.  I know a very sweet boy named McCain.  I believe there are some Presidents being honored here.  Esp in the case of Reagan. The older German's named their sons Herbert.  I believe at this point, they are all deceased.  Theodosia?  Why make the poor child have to learn to print such a long cumbersome name?  Perhaps shorten it to Thea.  That would be very kind.  I'm very lucky not to have any of these family names - Mildred, Leona, Doris, Margaret or Alice.  I'm a product of the 50's - Patricia.

6
November 14, 2016 5:53 PM

I had a student last year named Jefferson in honor of William Jefferson Clinton. It was a nice dual presidential name.