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.