Popularity of ‘Donald’ plunges as ‘Melania’ rises: how names accrue social meaning

On the up. Shutterstock

While his overall approval ratings might remain surprisingly upbeat, there’s one poll in which “The Donald” has seen a consistent decline. As Time magazine announced in 2017: “The Popularity of ‘Donald’ as a Baby Name Has Hit an All-Time Low.” And this downward trend has continued in 2018. According to social security data, fewer people named their newborns “Donald” over the last 12 months than at any time in the past 80 years.

On the upside for the Trumps, “Melania”, “Barron” and even “Ivanka” have seen a boost to their popularity. So has the trend to choose gun-related names, with a growing number of babies called “Trigger”, “Shooter” and “Magnum”.


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What’s in a name?

Names are a curious form of language. As the novelist P. G. Wodehouse wrote: “There’s some raw work pulled at the font from time to time.” He was talking from personal experience, having been lumbered with the rather unwieldy “Pelham Grenville” at birth. The trouble comes from the way that names accrue a meaning from the culture in which they’re used. They have a strange relationship with our identity. A name can shape a person’s personality, along with their decisions and life chances. But conversely, some people’s names shape the language right back.

Racial prejudice can come simply from a name. Shutterstock

The first part of this equation works as follows. Just as your parents might choose a name which accords with their own social values, so people often judge others on the associations suggested by theirs. This is most clearly seen in the unconscious racial prejudice that can creep into job interviews.

A 2004 study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, found that candidates with names such as Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones were far less likely to get called to an interview than people named Emily Walsh and Greg Baker, even when all other qualifications for the job were equal. And a similar effect has been recorded in the way that pupils fare at school.

Then there’s the way we judge ourselves based on our own names. “Nominative determinism” is the idea that people are more drawn to professions which relate to, or sound like, their own names. The term was coined by the journalist John Hoyland in 1994, although the concept goes back much further than this. In his 1952 book, Synchronicity, for example, psychologist Carl Jung wrote that there was “sometimes quite grotesque coincidence between a man’s name and his peculiarities”. He gave the example of his colleague Sigmund Freud, whose surname means “joy” and who spent his career investigating phenomena such as the “pleasure principle”.

A more recent example from the New Scientist noted how the Royal Horticultural Society included among its staff “four Heathers, three Berrys and another three called Moss”. One explanation for why this may be the case (and it should be noted that the scientific evidence for the phenomenon is mixed) is that it’s a form of “implicit egotism”: people tend to unconsciously favour things they see as related to them.


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Gordon Bennett!

Yet just as language can influence personality, so personalities can also influence our language. There are a number of examples where the names of real people have come to stand for a particular quality or behaviour in English. The word “boycott”, for instance, derives from the British landowner Captain Charles Boycott, who was socially ostracised by the Irish Land League in 1880.

Likewise the word “quisling”, referring to a traitor who collaborates with the enemy, is named after the Norwegian World War II military officer Vidkun Quisling who operated as a Nazi collaborationist. And then there’s “gerrymander”, coined by the Boston Gazette in 1812 when Governor Elbridge Gerry redrew the electoral boundaries in Massachusetts to benefit his own party. As one, the redrawn districts ended up looking like a salamander, so the journalist covering the story simply blended governor and lizard together to form the new word.

James Gordon Bennett Jr – a surprising figure.

While these examples relate to the infamous actions of the people concerned, there are also instances where personality more generally has translated into everyday vocabulary. “Gordon Bennett”, used as an expression of shock or incredulity, is one of the most notable. The phrase derives from the real-life James Gordon Bennett Jr, an American publisher and amateur sportsman, known for his rather wild and eccentric behaviour.

It’s not always as easy as this though to determine whether phrases are inspired by real people or not. Was Larry, of Happy as Larry fame, an actual individual? One hypothesis is that it refers to the Australian boxer Larry Foley, who went undefeated throughout his career. And how about Riley, who lived a life of carefree ease? The best guess here is that it refers to the hero of a 19th-century Irish folk ballad, who did indeed enjoy an admirably relaxed existence.

All these cases illustrate the way that language is built from the culture in which we live. Be it the names of individual people, of communities (Spartan, vandal), or of literary characters (Scrooge, Romeo) we draw on examples from the world around us to communicate our thoughts and feelings. And the examples that prove most popular become conventionalised as part of our everyday vocabulary.

As to the influence the name Donald is likely to have on contemporary society, it’s probably too early to say. But for advocates of the idea that one’s name is one’s destiny, it’s worth noting that the Celtic origins of “Donald” rather ominously mean “ruler of the world”.

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