When Names Mattered

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David Cowles / www.illoz.com/cowles

We used to name our babies to honor active presidents, leaders, and cultural icons like Shirley Temple, whose captivating dimples drove the name Shirley to the fourth-most-popular rank at the zenith of her career. No more, writes Laura Wattenberg at The Baby Name Wizard (June 22, 2011). Now we avoid naming our children after current politicians and celebrities. “You’re probably dredging up examples right now to prove me wrong,” concedes Wattenberg. “But on a broad societal level it’s dramatically true.”

Wattenberg cites some telling statistics: After the election of Barack Obama, only 60 more U.S. babies were named Barack or Obama than during the previous year. Now compare 2008 to 1896. Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan saw his country name 1 in 2,400 children either the unconventional Jennings or the unconventionally spelled Bryan–and don’t forget that he lost the election. Obama’s effect was just 1 in 71,000, and Bill Clinton fared even lower.

Like the proverbial painters whose work isn’t valuable until after their deaths, many political leaders score better on the name charts after they–and their chance for scandal–have been laid to rest. “Perhaps, then,” concludes Wattenberg, “it’s not just hero names but frank public admiration itself that’s out of style.”

Have something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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