- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2019

Monica was on the minds of thousands of new parents in the 1990s, fueled by the popularity of the character on NBC’s hit sitcom “Friends.”

In 1997 alone, more than 4,200 babies were given the name.

Then a White House intern saved an incriminating blue dress, and everything changed. The number of new Monicas was cut in half by 1999, and continued dropping into the new century. By 2018, fewer than 500 baby Monicas were recorded in the Social Security names database.

President Bill Clinton’s affair and his subsequent scandal with Monica Lewinsky tarnished the name for a generation of American parents who figured the last thing they wanted for their baby was to be associated with the sordidness at the White House.

But the Clinton years did introduce a new name to America as well in the form of a little Cuban boy found floating in Florida waters, Elian Gonzalez. His name didn’t even register in name records for most of the 1990s, but in 2000 — the year he was ripped from relatives in their Miami home the day before Easter and shipped back to Cuba — 583 children were named Elian.

Even now, Elian has staying power, with 770 boys given the name last year — more than girls named Monica.

Sociologists have written at length on the nexus between popular entertainment and baby names, but for much of the last century, politics was as important a factor in shaping new Americans’ identities.

“If you go back to the 19th century or even the beginning of the 20th century, before you had electronic media, before radio and TV, where people would find a ‘new name’ would be in the newspaper. People who were in the news — politicians were some of the people in the newspaper,” said Cleveland Evans, a professor who teaches psychology at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Nebraska.

That explains why in 1884, when Grover Cleveland won the White House, 809 babies bore his name — up from just 127 boys the year before. Eight years later, when Cleveland became the only president to win nonconsecutive terms, the name surged again, from 163 in 1891 to 459 in 1892.

Two decades later Woodrow Wilson helped usher in a generation of little Woodrows, sending the name soaring from 121 in 1911 to 1,854 a year later, during the campaign, and 2,343 in 1913, the year he was inaugurated. That total includes 10 babies that Social Security lists as girls, though one expert said most of those are likely boys who were tagged wrong in the records.

By the end of the 20th century, though, political names were far more complicated.

Baby Jacquelines skyrocketed in 1961, with the glamorous Kennedy family taking up residence in the White House. There was even a small surge of Bernies in 2016.

But Hillary, which had been climbing the charts in the early 1990s, tanked in 1993 — as Hillary Clinton entered the White House as the first lady who wasn’t going to stay home and bake cookies.

Mr. Evans said it’s not that Americans necessarily disliked her at that point, but that they feared being seen as unoriginal.

“When you say Hillary, she’s who people think of. Because there weren’t any other famous adult women named Hillary, she dominated the name,” he said, explaining that new parents were not necessarily recoiling at her politics, but at the thought of being seen as joiners.

“They knew everybody around them would tease them, say you named your daughter after Hillary Clinton,” he said.

Yet that didn’t seem to hurt the name Malia, which shot up the charts in 2009, with first daughter Malia Obama’s arrival at the White House.

“Children often, even when you look at characters on TV and movies, cute kids often particularly have a positive effect on the names,” Mr. Evans said.

Malia’s father also turned an obscure name into a bit of a phenomenon.

The Social Security lists don’t list names used fewer than five times, so it’s possible there were a couple of Baracks each year before 2007, but they don’t register in the public data. But during the early campaign year of 2007, there were five babies named Barack. In election year 2008 there were 52. And the year he took office, 2009, some 71 babies were named after him.

The name has not fallen off the lists since.

Among recent presidents, though, Barack Obama is the exception.

President Trump has done nothing to reverse the decline of Donalds, nor did President George W. Bush rescue the Georges. Mr. Clinton didn’t seem to affect the pace of new Williams, either.

“The country’s more divided now, so you can have a beloved candidate on the one side that’s reviled on the other. So you don’t necessarily want to give your child a disadvantage with a name that has baggage associated with it,” said Jennifer Moss, founder of BabyNames.com.

Mr. Evans agreed: “It’s just become gauche to name kids after any politicians. Politician is a bad word.”

Experts offer a few rules for figuring out which names are likely to rise.

An already super-popular name won’t be affected. William McKinley’s 1896 election victory didn’t seem to win his name any new adherents, nor did Harry Truman’s ascension to the White House in 1945.

John was already the third most popular name for boys in 1961, so it’s tough to tell whether a several-thousand increase that year was due to the new president or just normal statistical variation. The fact that the name Jack — the president’s nickname — slid in numbers suggests the latter.

But many little Warrens, Franklins and Calvins in the first half of the last century certainly owed their names to presidents.

Lyndon Johnson was the last to have a clear effect on a name, with just 176 Lyndons in 1963, but 519 in 1964, his first full year in office after the death of Kennedy.

Ms. Moss said parents are becoming more “creative” with baby naming, including trying to avoid the names in the Top 10. That’s a huge change from the middle of the last century. In 1947, for example, there were just shy of 100,000 Lindas, and Jennifers dominated the 1970s, with at least 50,000 born each year.

By contrast the top girl’s name in 2018 was Emma, with fewer than 19,000.

“It was more important to conform back in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Ms. Moss said. “Now it’s more acceptable not to conform, to be your own person.”

Name culture in the U.S. is controlled by the states, so laws vary, but for the most part it’s pretty freewheeling, Ms. Moss said. As long as something isn’t vulgar, it’s likely to be OK.

Some countries are far more strict, and parents must choose from an approved list, with a naming board charged with giving final approval.

“We’ve had several people ask us to put a particular name in the database so their registrar will see it’s a real name and it can be approved,” Ms. Moss said.

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