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Presidential Names: Which ones went viral?

September 25, 2014 nicknamer

By Nick Turner

Like millions of Americans, I was riveted by the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts that aired this month on PBS. (I didn’t manage to watch all of 14 hours, but I hope to catch up eventually.)

I adore the first names in the Roosevelt family tree (Alice, Anna, Edith, Eleanor, Elliot, Ethel and Theodore are probably my favorites). But the documentary also got me thinking about Roosevelt itself, which the family’s charisma helped turn into a surprisingly common baby name.

In 1905, when Teddy Roosevelt was beginning his second term as president, his surname became the 91st most popular baby name in America. At the time, Roosevelt ranked higher than Stephen, Jacob, Alexander, Patrick or Philip.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt served his unprecedented four terms in office, the name enjoyed a renaissance  though he never propelled it to the same heights as his more swashbuckling cousin, TR. During the FDR administration, the baby name Roosevelt topped out at 132nd in 1933.

The Roosevelts were the most dramatic example of presidents swaying the naming decisions of new parents, but they weren’t alone.

Over much of the twentieth century, presidential names surged in popularity during a candidate’s election year or first term of office.

Take the name Harrison. Its pinnacle of popularity was 1888, the year Benjamin Harrison was elected.

Or McKinley, a baby name that peaked in 1896  the year that president won his bid for the White House. (McKinley is now generally considered a girls’ name.)

Wilson ranked highest in 1913 and 1918  two important moments for Woodrow Wilson. The first year marked his swearing-in as president, while the second coincided with leading America to victory in World War I.

(Note: I’m only looking at surnames that became baby names, not whether a president’s first name grew more popular. Anyone can nudge parents into picking John or James  it’s a much bigger achievement to get people to name their kids something like Taft.)

Even Warren G. Harding, whose only term was cut short by scandal, somehow persuaded a significant number of parents to choose Harding as a baby name. It reached 391 in 1920, the year of his election.

By the latter half of the 1900s, the allure of presidential monikers was waning. Kennedy was the last chief executive to inspire a generation of namers, and that was largely because of his tragic death. Kennedy topped out at 515 for boys in 1964, the first full year after his assassination. (Like McKinley, Kennedy is now far more popular as a girls’ name.)

Since Kennedy, no president has had a perceptible impact on baby-naming trends during his administration. (In more recent years, though, Reagan‘s name has become a top 100 name for girls.)

Well…I should say, no president had a perceptible positive impact. Jimmy Carter suffered perhaps the greatest indignity when he caused the baby name Carter to drop out of the top 1,000 in 1978 and 1979  the only years it hasn’t charted for more than a century. (Carter‘s handling of the energy crisis had taken a toll on his approval ratings.)

The name Obama (the only non-European name) has never ranked in the top 1,000 in any year, and fewer than five parents chose it last year (meaning it didn’t appear in Social Security Administration data at all).

It did pick up some adherents during the honeymoon of his presidency, though. In 2008, the year Barack was elected, 14 parents named their boys Obama. The number rose to 16 in 2009. After that, it disappeared. (Like voters, namers are a fickle lot.)

Other than Obama, only one presidential name since 1880 has never reached the top 1,000 in any year. That’s Eisenhower. Despite the president’s war-hero status, the name Eisenhower was apparently excessively Teutonic (or maybe just had too many syllables) for Americans to stomach as a baby name.

Believe it or not, Bush charted as a baby name one year: 1889, when it ranked 809th. As I’ve said before, people made some unusual choices in the nineteenth century. But it never registered during either president’s term.

That brings us back to Roosevelt, which would seem poised for a resurgence in this golden era of surname-y baby names.

The name last appeared in the top 1,000 in 1993, when it was 964th. The word has Dutch origins and means “rose field.” It was once popular with African-American parents, inspired perhaps by FDR’s support of civil rights.

These days, it’s not really popular with much of anyone. Just 39 boys were named Roosevelt last year, down from 48 the prior year. (In fairness, that’s a lot better than Obama.)

Perhaps the “rose” association and the inevitable “Rosie” nickname alienates parents of boys, despite Teddy Roosevelt‘s tough-as-nails reputation.

That makes me wonder if we should resurrect Roosevelt as a girls’ name. It worked for McKinley and Kennedy. Why not Roosevelt?

Americans may already be a step ahead of me. There were ten female babies named Roosevelt last year, up from zero in 2012 and 2011. That’s not many, but it may be the start of something.

For those of you interested in presidential names, I’ve compiled a list of all of them since 1880 (as far back as SSA data goes). I included both the year that the name peaked overall and its peak year during the president’s administration.

There are many charming picks here, but you may want to conduct some polls before electing one.

 Rutherford B. Hayes

Peak year: 1905 (513)

Peak year during administration (1877-1881): Not ranked

 

James A. Garfield

Peak year: 1886 (276)

Peak year during administration (1881): not ranked

Chester A. Arthur

Peak year: 1884 (14)

Peak year during administration (1881-1885): 1884 (14)

Grover Cleveland

Peak year: 1884 (92)

Peak year during first administration (1885-1889): 1885 (98)

Peak year during second administration (1893-1897): 1893 (209)

Benjamin Harrison

Peak year: 1888 (52)

Peak year during administration (1889-1893): 1888 (52)

William McKinley

Peak year: 1896 (137)

Peak year during administration (1897-1901): 1897 (141)

Theodore Roosevelt / Franklin Roosevelt

Peak year: 1905 (91)

Peak year during TR administration (1901-1909): 1905 (91)

Peak year during FDR administration (1933-1945): 1933 (132)

William H. Taft

Peak year: 1908 (273)

Peak year during administration (1909-1913): (320)

Woodrow Wilson

Peak year: 1913, 1918: (122)

Peak year during administration (1913-1921): 1913, 1918: (122)

Warren G. Harding

Peak year: 1920 (391)

Peak year during administration (1921-1923): 191 (396)

Calvin Coolidge

Peak year: 1924 (732)

Peak year during administration (1923-1929): 1924 (732)

Herbert Hoover

Peak year: 1928 (365)

Peak year during administration (1929-1933): 1929 (406)

Harry S Truman

Peak year: 1945 (249)

Peak year during administration (1945-1953): 1945 (249)

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Peak year: Never charted

Peak year during administration (1953-1961): Never charted

John F. Kennedy

Peak year: 1964 for boys (515), 2013 for girls (64)

Peak year during administration (1961-1963): 1964 for boys (515)

Lyndon Johnson

Peak year: 1905 (327)

Peak year during administration (1963-1969): Didn’t chart

Richard Nixon

Peak year: 2013 (587)

Peak year during administration (1969-1974): Didn’t chart

Gerald Ford

Peak year: 1890 (442)

Peak year during administration (1974-1977): Didn’t chart

Jimmy Carter

Peak year: 2013 (32)

Peak year during administration (1977-1981): 1977 (774)

Ronald Reagan

Peak year: 2012 for girls (97)

Peak year during administration (1981-1989): Didn’t chart

George H. W. Bush / George W. Bush

Peak year: 1889 (809)

Peak year during HW administration (1989-1993): Didn’t chart

Peak year during W administration (2001-2009): Didn’t chart

 Bill Clinton

Peak year: 1981 (124)

Peak year during administration (1993-2001): 1993 (316)

Barack Obama

Peak year: never charted

Peak year during administration (2009-present): never charted

 

About the author

Nick

Nick Turner is a writer and editor living in New York City (by way of San Francisco). He and his wife have successfully named three kids. Follow him on Twitter at @SFNick.

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