Spencer Tracy in a screenshot from the trailer...
Screenshot from Broken Lance; Image via Wikipedia

Today’s choice is the given name of a Hollywood titan, and the surname of real life royalty.

He’s also quite the popular pick for a boy.  Thanks to Emma for suggesting today’s Baby Name of the Day: Spencer.

We’re still surrounded by spencers.  The admin who doles out post-it notes and sharpies in your office is only a few centuries removed from the original.  The Latin dispensare means to disburse or distribute.  In Middle English, the spence was the pantry, where provisions were kept.  And so the spenser was the steward charged with doling out its contents.

As surnames came into use, we find families using Spencer, along with Baker and Parker and Carter.

Robert le Dispenser appears in the Domesday Book in 1086.  Sometimes he was referred to as Lord Steward, or even Robertus Dispensator.  The name evolved over the centuries, losing his “le” and “de” permanently and swapping the center “s” for a “c” in the late fourteenth century.  The first aristocratic Spencer is Lady Diana Spencer’s ancestor, the fifteenth century Henry Spencer.

Spencer surfaced in the US as a surname and a given name – he’s never been out of the US Top 1000.

For generations, Spencer Tracy – born in 1900 – would be the best known bearer of the name, a Hollywood leading man for nearly four decades and two-time recipient of the Best Actor Oscar.  From 1937’s Captains Courageous to 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he shared the screen with other Hollywood legends.  He and Katharine Hepburn co-starred nine times, and had a real life love affair, too.

Tracy’s fame boosted the name modestly, but his rise doesn’t really begin until the 1970s and accelerated in the 80s.  I looked for clues on television and found two:

  • General Hospital’s supercouple Luke Spencer and Laura Webber were must-see-TV starting in 1978.
  • Private eye Spenser – “with an s, like the poet” – was the main character in Robert B. Parker’s series beginning in the 1970s, and adpated for television from 1985 through 1988.  Robert Ulrich played the lead.  Spenser is clearly his last name, but no given name is revealed.  Spenser only appears in the US Top 1000 from 1986 through 1996, confirming Spenser: For Hire’s influence.

But I was missing something, and Laura Wattenberg found it: Spencer W. Kimball became president of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1973, and tha name rose first in Utah.  Check out her fascinating article about Spencer – and Utah baby names – here.

There are classic references, too.  Winston Churchill’s middle name was Spencer.  (He was part of the powerful Spencer family.)  Sixteenth century poet Edmund Spenser – the one who inspired the fictional detective’s quip above – he wrote The Faerie Queen, giving the name literary roots.

You’d expect to find a teenaged Spencer sharing the soccer field with Andrew, Charlie, and Josh.  He’s just a little bit preppy, but not in a bad way.

But then the name went downmarket, thanks to controversial reality star Spencer Pratt.  He and wife Heidi Montag rose to stardom on MTV’s The Hills.

I suspect that explains some of Spencer’s decline from the Top 100 in the 1990s.  As of 2009, he’d dived to #218.

But don’t count Spencer out.  Reality TV might’ve tarnished Spencer, but this is the kind of not-quite-classic name that never goes out of use.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. My first association is Spencer Carlin, female lead of teen drama South of Nowhere. Is it bad that I sort of like it for a girl?

  2. Spencer didn’t appear on The Hills until 2006. He is so outrageously terrible that the name is ruined for me.

    1. Thanks, Megan. Spencer actually peaked in 1998, so I guess his decline wasn’t about Spencer Pratt, and that was a reach on my part … though I still suspect that it has convinced a few parents to veto the name since 2006!

  3. I think of Spencer as a boy’s name even though I went to college with a girl Spencer and I know Kelsey Grammer named one of his daughters Spencer.

  4. I only know one Spencer and she’s a girl so I think of her first, then Spencer Tracy, and then Spencer, iCarly’s brother. I like it, but definitely not a favorite.

    1. Great addition to the list! I’m sure it will keep Spencer in mind for some of the next generation of parents.

  5. I know so many Spencers: my Godmother’s 70-something bother, a old co-worker’s daughter (yuck), several classmates of my step-kids and my boss has had three shih tzus named Spenser. It’s a perfectly nice name and Spencer is a name I’d encourage another parent to use… but it was soooo popular for a while, that it feels a bit stuck in 1995.

    Since I-Carly is on in the other room, I’m reminded that Spencer is the name of the older brother on that show.

  6. I think I had Spenser on my favorites list back in college. I loved literary namesakes and had just finished reading The Faerie Queene. Now? I’d be more likely to use Edmund.

    Spenser/Spencer is certainly a handsome, masculine choice, and I can see why someone would like it. But you’re right that it doesn’t feel quite classic enough for my old-fashioned tastes.

    Speaking of literary namesakes, I’m still pondering Marlowe’s usability on a boy. What do you think?

    1. I think Marlowe wears well, probably more because of Raymond Chandler’s detective. If Dashiell is fashionable, why not Marlowe?

  7. Spencer Reid [played by Matthew Gray Gubler] from Criminal Minds comes to mind first. It’s a nice association for me. If I had a Spencer, I’d hope he’d turn out like Dr. Reid. 🙂