Watch Political Baby Naming Change Through the Years
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.