Failure to Launch Names: Hillary in the 1990s

This series is a subset of Spotlight Names dedicated to names that had the potential to become huge for a certain decade. They represented a certain era well, but for whatever reason never made it to the top 100. Perhaps for these names, their time is yet to come.

Hillary in the 1990s

Hillary is the classic “failure to launch” name. We can’t claim to be the first to discuss Hilary’s and Hillary’s historic fall, but no list of failure to launch names would be complete without this classic tale of politics’ dramatic influence on baby name trends.

Hilary, with one L, is a Medieval English name. Hilary is also another gender cross-over name beginning life as a boy’s name, becoming obscure, only to come back in the 20th century as a girl’s name.

This name was destined to become huge. It has a lively cadence similar to Cecily, and Felicity, names I see becoming hot eventually, and already considered stylish among name aficionados. Hilary’s meaning, “cheerful” is undeniably positive, and for a while things looked up for Hilary. Entering the top 1000 for the first time in 1949, the name gradually climbed the charts, hitting the top 300 in the 1980s.

The Hillary variation (used by Ms. Clinton), possibly inspired by the surname of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to climb Mt. Everest, saw a similar, if slightly more dramatic climb, entering the top 1000 in 1963, gradually climbing, and peaking at 131 in 1992.

Hillary seemed destined for the top 100, and the older (etymologically speaking) Hilary seemed destined for the top 200, or possibly the top 100. The combined sound very well could have been ubiquitous among today’s twenty-something’s and teens. Can’t you picture Hillary as a potential sister for 90’s hit Katelyn? Both names have an L in the middle and share a Y near the end.

Most of us know the rest of the story. Hillary Clinton became the First Lady, and use of both variations dropped precipitously. Sometimes an association helps a name; Shirley Temple helped her name skyrocket in the 1930s, but other times an association kills a name.

While a cheery girl with cute ringlets is an image many parents want to emulate, a political figure in politically divisive times is a burden most parents don’t want for their daughters. (Ironically, the grown-up Shirley Temple Black entered the world of politics, sitting on the opposite side of the political aisle from Hillary Clinton.)

Consequently, after their peak, both variations plummeted right after the 1992 election. Hilary peaked at 233 in 1992, then dropped to 649 the following year, and then left the top 1000 completely, and has yet to return.

Hillary has fared only slightly better, dropping from its peak at 131 in 1992, to 261 the following year, then 566 the next year, and continued to drop, leaving the top 1000 in 2001. Hillary briefly returned to the top 1000 from 2004 to 2008, but then left the top 1000 again, after reaching 720 in 2008.

While uncertain, the 2008 elections which saw Hillary fail to reach the Presidency, but become Secretary of State, could have caused the second exit from the top 1000. The timing is suggestive.

Not even Oscar winner Hilary Swank or Disney darling Hilary Duff can neutralize the Clinton image, even with the different spelling. I thought perhaps the different spelling and multiple associations would downplay the Clinton image and help the more established Hilary become fashionable again. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not at the moment.

Hilary/Hillary doesn’t get much love in other English-speaking countries either. In the UK in 2010 Hilary was given to 8 girls and Hillary was given to 11 girls. In BC Canada, Hilary and Hillary were given to fewer than 5, if any, girls. We were unable to find data on Australian baby names outside the top 100.

Maybe in time, the Clinton association will diminish and parents will embrace this lively name again.

Readers: What do you think of Hillary?

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