As Joe Biden has vetted prospective VP candidates, the leading names have been analyzed and dissected in the media in every imaginable way. Every way but one, that is: the names themselves. Because while the nominee is expected to be ground-breaking—likely the first woman of color on a major ticket—the names are, by and large, resoundingly ordinary. In particular, they are emblems of the last last-hurrah era of ordinary names, the 1960s. But like the names of that decade, they show hints of change to come.
The ’60s were a turning point in American culture, and names were part of that. Previously, while name trends did come and go, consensus was the byword. Most American babies received a familiar, broadly popular name, and the top names held steady across race and geography. In 1960, for instance, the boys’ names Michael and David ranked in the top 5 of every state in the Union. As the decade went on, a cultural shift toward individuality and diversity planted the seeds of a new naming era. But as of 1967, consensus still largely held. Take a look at the top girls’ names of that year:
The six names in bold are found among the ten women who have been most talked-about as VP candidates: Michelle Lujan Grisham, Susan Rice, Karen Bass, Tammy Duckworth, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren. (Notably, while the names Karen and Susan have recently become bywords for white entitlement, Bass and Rice are both Black women. It’s a good reminder that names haven’t always been so racially divided—and that we have a cultural bias to label “neutral” names as white.)
Of the remaining four names, Gretchen (Whitmer) was also modestly popular in the 1960’s and into the ’70s. Keisha (Lance Bottoms) was a trendy 1970s name, as befits the only woman on the list born in the ’70s. That leaves two names, Val and Kamala, both of which are rooted to the ’60s, and specifically the year 1964.
Val is a common and familiar nickname thanks to the given name Valerie. Valerie’s popularity peaked in 1964, so the nickname Val suggests that era and sounds of a piece with the likes of Tammy and Susan. In the case of Demings, though, Val is actually short for Valdez, a Spanish surname that has never registered in American name statistics as a female given name. It would arguably be the most unconventional name ever on a US presidential ticket, but masked by a conventional nickname.
As for Kamala, 1964 was the year.
While Kamala’s peak coincided with Valerie’s, in other ways the names represented the two sides of ’60s naming The name Kamala comes from Sanskrit, and is the name of one aspect of a Hindu devi (goddess). It was brought to the US by an Indian actress with the fitting name Kamala Devi. Devi debuted in the 1958 film Harry Black. She later appeared in Geronimo with American actor Chuck Connors in 1962, married Connors in 1963, then enjoyed a key moment of breakthrough success with The Brass Bottle in 1964. You can see that whole career history in the popularity chart of the name Kamala, especially the 1964 surge.
Celebrity-inspired name waves were routine even then, but names from non-European traditions were seldom the target. What’s more, the flurry of interest in the name Kamala was especially concentrated among Americans of Indian descent. Actress Kamala Lopez, whose mother was Indian, was born in 1964. So was Senator Kamala Harris, also daughter of an Indian-born mother. Her full name, in fact, is Senator Kamala Devi Harris. That makes the name Kamala look a lot like a name of deliberate pride, a celebration of one American family’s diverse heritage. Which put it in the vanguard of a whole generation of names that followed.
Today, that has the effect of making the name Kamala sound younger than the other names on the list. In 2013, Marvel Comics even chose the name Kamala for a teenage hero, “Ms. Marvel.” Kamala Harris and Susan Rice were born within weeks of each other, but their names sound a generation apart. If most of the names of the VP prospects (and all of the mens’ names in the race) are throwbacks to the baby-name old guard, Kamala is perhaps a glimpse forward. As later-born generations enter the halls of power, expect the names of political leaders to change rapidly and dramatically. The days of races like 1996’s Bill vs. Bob and 2004’s John vs. George are numbered.
Valdez is a bit weird, I will admit, but I’d argue 2020 has already brought us the most bizarre veep name ever. The Libertarians have decided to nominate the podcaster Spike Cohen as their ticket’s veep. He was actually born Jeremy, but he took the nickname “Spike” from – I am not making this up – the 1986 My Little Pony movie.
I wonder how the actress pronounced Kamala. Ms. Harris stresses the first syllable (“Comma-la”, according to old campaign ads).
I don’t agree, I think anything Spanish would be reflective and appropriate if not new.
Since I learned with interest of her by reading, I thought it was more like Pamela with a “K.” (Which I suppose I think it as “Pam-Mel-La” in my western region anyway!?)
However as much as people are dismissive for political reasons, it’s not that hard to say “COMMAla.” And I’m sure she’s had to correct or coach people all her life and still remain unprecedented. 🙂
Thanks for the insight! I wonder if there’s a phase or distinct timeline in the US on “traditional” spellings vs. “anything-but“ for the previous adherence to national conventions? People regularly need to correct on the otherwise familiar names now, based on the way they’re written it seems.
Makes me think of the residents in the hospital where I work: these days they’re as often to be Dallas or Hailey as Michael or Elizabeth.