Monday, February 20, 2012

Presidential Naming

One of my great uncles was named "Grover Cleveland Savage". He was born on November 20, 1885 in the first year of president Grover Cleveland's first term. Another uncle, Franklin Pierce Kingsbury, was born in 1852, the year Franklin Pierce was elected president. A third uncle, Lincoln Avery, was born on 24 Oct 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected. The campaign of Lincoln seems to have so moved his parents that they named their son after him, even though they were living in Canada.

So, how big of an effect do elections have on how Americans name their children? To answer this question, I checked out NameTrends.net, which gives data from 1880 to 2010. In some cases the effect appears to be quite large. For example, the name Grover experienced a substantial rise during Cleveland's first campaign and subsequent peaks during his two later campaigns in 1888 and 1892 (see chart here). More than five times as many boys were named Grover during the year of the campaign and his first year in office than the year before. This is the biggest increase for any of the presidents during the years covered. All the presidents from Grover Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt experienced a naming bump in the campaign year and the first year in office. The following list indicates the size of the naming bump of different presidents from highest to lowest.
Number of additional boys with name per 1000Grover Cleveland - 5.45
Warren Harding - 3.76
Woodrow Wilson - 3.71
Franklin Roosevelt - 2.89
Herbert Hoover - 2.75
William McKinley - 2.06
Benjamin Harrison - 1.88
William Howard Taft - 1.43

After WWII, a major shift appears to have taken place in how Americans chose names for their children. For all post-WWII presidents, the size of the bump has been smaller and often non-existent. Of these president, arguably only Eisenhower and Kennedy had naming bumps. Eisenhower is something of a special case, as the name "Dwight" had already experienced a surge during WWII when General Eisenhower first rose to prominence. The name "John" grew steadily in popularity during Kennedy's presidency peaking in the year after his assassination. Compare this with Reagan who appears to have had very little effect on the fortunes of the name "Ronald".

Although the trend is clear, I am not sure what is behind it. What changed in American society and culture that would account for this change Do any readers have any theories? Please share them in the comments.

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