Thursday, November 13, 2008

Spencer, revisited

Yesterday, I clicked through Google Reader to the Baby Name Wizard blog. Her newest post was titled, "Name Spotlight: Spencer," and I thought, "hmm, how interesting, I just barely wrote about the name Spencer, too."

Then I read the entry and realized it wasn't a coincidence - the Baby Name Wizard was blogging about my blog post. I guess nobody but a name-nerd Mormon would have a gut feeling about all those Spencers born in Utah in 1973, so I picked up on a name story that she wouldn't have noticed herself.

She goes on to tell the rest of the story about the name, explaining why (which I couldn't do) Spencer became popular in the rest of America for reasons other than it being the name of the Mormon prophet.

A question that still remains is why names like Harold (B. Lee), Ezra (Taft Benson), Howard (W. Hunter) and Gordon (B. Hinckley) have not sparked instant waves of namesakes, not even in Utah.

I can think of two possible reasons. First, the LDS population is more spread out these days than it was in 1973, so a Mormon naming trend might not show up so heavily in one state. Then again, I imagine the proportions in Utah have remained the same or increased, so maybe that isn't a reason after all.

The other reason is that the name game is more high-stakes these days. You can't just give your kids nice, normal names anymore, or so it seems. So parents have found other ways to give tribute - middle names, or perhaps corruptions or alternative interpretations of names of the prophets. I can think of at least one Mormon friend of mine who gave one of her kids the middle name Hinckley, after Gordon B. I do know another friend who named her son Ezra, but I don't know if it was after Ezra Taft Benson, and if it was, it certainly was well after his death, not in the first year of his time as president of the church.

Does anyone else have any ideas on why other Mormon prophets' names don't show up as trends in the Mormon community?


Liz Johnson said...

Huh, how very cool.

I know lots of kids with the name Ezra, but they're all under five. I tend to wonder if it's after both Ezra Taft Benson AND the Old Testament prophet.

My guess is that those other names aren't cute (ha). Spencer sounds more like other popular names today, whereas Gordon, Howard, and Harold are all names associated with our grandparents. I do know several kids with the name Taft, and a few named Lee. What about Hunter? Is there a change there?

Crys said...

I was just going to say I bet you will see people naming their kids Taft. Everyone just wants to be different...and then we all end up being the same. What is the deal with the name Asher. I never knew an Asher growing up and now they are all over the place...all under three, but still, odd watching a name catch fire.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

The popularity of Bible names must account for Ezra, Asher, etc. But don't expect to hear the names Naphtali, Lot, Gad, Enos, etc. anytime soon.

As for the Mormon prophet names Harold, Howard, and Gordon, boy names don't seem to break the time barrier as well as female names. Grace, Ruby, Agnes, Sophia, Abigail, are early 1900s names my generation wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole. But you hear them all the time now. What we don't hear are the male names from the same era--Milton, Howard, Harold, Walter, Herbert, Chester, Albert, Wilfred, Fred, etc. Henry is one exception.

Personally, I like the name Gordon and would consider it now for a baby name.

Fromagette said...

It's funny, but my brother was born in the 70s and his name is Spencer. And I think your mom hit it on the head. Names like that just don't age well. Why is it that it is harder for people to find boy names that they like than girl names? I remember having a long list of girl names that I liked, but zero to few boy names

Eliza said...

Hey, I found your blog on the Baby Name Wizard's post and had to click over since I'm Mormon and love baby names too.

I remember Laura Wattenberg writing about why certain names haven't aged well--something to do with consonant clusters not being appealing: Gertrude, Herbert, etc. I agree, though, that boy names from that era haven't come back with the force of girl names, probably because there are so many feminine and pretty girl names to choose from and many of the boy names just sound a little dowdy. The "prettier" ones, like Henry, are not as easy to find.

I have noticed a lot of Ezras around, but not necessarily Mormons, and none born in the 80s/90s. I think it's the Old Testament or pioneer-era sound which are both popular now (and so perfect for Mormons as a side note...Ezra, Emma, Eliza, Abraham, Isaiah, Moses). Plus the Jewish factor. Maybe if our newest prophet was named Ezra instead of Thomas, we would see a spike in Ezra in Utah. It sounds like the Spencer phenomenon was a case of good timing--a name that was already going to be popular, plus a man a lot of people admired.

The popularity of last-name-first-names in the 90s might also account for it. There are more Hunters, Maxwells, etc. around than Howards or Neals.

Also, in terms of noticeable name spikes, there are so many more names used now than there used to be. Whereas 30 years ago there were a million Spencers, Keiths, Brians, Jennifers, etc., now the popular names are still noticeable, but in fewer numbers.

Anyway, clearly I am a little bit obsessed and have written way too much on a stranger's blog. BTW I think the name Gordon is cute too. So is Gordy. Can't you just imagine a little kid named Gordy getting into all kinds of mischief?

Bridget said...

Taft is kind of neat. Crys, it's funny you mention Asher because the same mom who gave one of her kids the middle name Hinckley also named one of them Asher (I can't remember if it's the same kid or his brother).

Eliza, welcome. I think you're on to something when you say that it was just Spencer's moment, set off by President Kimball.

I think Hunter has too much wide appeal to be attributed to Howard W., even if there was a spike, which there might not be because he was prophet for so short a time.

Kristen said...

I am glad you turned off word verification because a) I hate it and b) this is at least the third time where I've discovered a day or two after leaving a comment that it didn't actually get posted. I probably misspell the random letters and don't check. Either that, or you are deleting my comments. Is that it?

My younger brother's middle name is Kimball. He was born in 1984, right before the end of Spencer W's tenure. My parents were on the cutting edge of the surname trend! I know Mormon families with sons named Ezra and Taft (not both in the same family thank goodness). I also have a cousin named McKay, but that certainly wasn't part of any big surge. I agree with your commentary on today's high-stakes naming game. Our generation has a tendency to want to stand out from the crowd. And it will probably get worse before it gets better. Although we are seeing resurgence of some normal vintage names like Jack, Rose, Eleanor, etc. I've seen some pretty devastating name bastardizations (Taeler comes to mind). Also, one friend decided to give her 3 children Biblical names, but purposely spell them differently. The names are not horrid, but it seems a little blasphemous.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Kristen brings up the issue of using "alternate" spellings for names in the quest to be different. There are names which have acceptable multiple spellings such as Kristy-Christy-Christie-etc. But I believe it handicaps a child when you make up a silly spelling such as Maysen for Mason. It's still pronounced Mason and all you have done is complicate the child's life, as they'll have to spell it out for people until the day they die. In the quest to be clever it also makes the parents look illiterate. See Eric Snider's column

Cait said...

Atticus's middle name is Gordon, after Tim's mission companion Gordon, who may be named after Gordon B. but I actually have never asked. (PS, I'm on this random old post reading through all of your claims to fame on the side bar, I've never noticed those before... because Ken Jennings?! Cool.)


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