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Recognize This Guy? I Guarantee You Know His Name(s)

September 21, 2023 laurawattenberg 3 Comments

Recognize This Guy? I Guarantee You Know His Name(s)

September 21, 2023 LauraWattenberg 3 Comments

Zachary is a much-loved name. It’s the one boy’s name that offers the zap of a Z in the package of a timeless biblical classic. Except Zachary isn’t timeless. In fact, through World War II the name was a rarity…until he came along. And his influence didn’t stop at Zachary.

So who was he?

Zachary, Before

For much of US history, the name Zachary languished in obscurity. 19th-century US President Zachary Taylor would seem to disprove that statement, but Taylor made less of a Zachary impression than you might think. Even Taylor’s VP and successor made a bigger hit of his unlikely given name: Millard Fillmore.

Zachary was nowhere. Over the period 1880-1945, Zachary ranked only 35th among Z names in America, behind the likes of Zeola, Zelpha and Zollie. Then everything changed. In 1946, the number of Zacharys rose enough to rank the name among the top thousand for boys. And it kept on rising.

Popularity graph of babies named Zachary in the USA from 1930-1960. The line is low and flat until 1946 when it starts steadily rising.

By 1976 Zachary ranked in the top hundred and made up a majority of all Z-babies born. It settled in as a top-hundred boy’s name for the next 40 years straight, establishing itself as a new “old classic.”

Flipping the Switch

Zachary’s turning point was the film Mildred Pierce. Released late in 1945, the noir melodrama earned star Joan Crawford an Academy Award. It also marked a new career high for costar Zachary Scott. The film’s heavily female audience took notice of that particular Zachary, and a name star was born.

Film still of Zachary Scott looking at Joan Crawford, from Mildred Pierce
Zachary Scott and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Lest we doubt Zachary Scott’s power, he also boosted the name Scott. Scott had always been far more common than Zachary. It goes back to the middle ages as a given name, and the surname Scott has an impressive history from Ivanhoe author Sir Walter Scott to US General Winfield Scott to Western film star Randolph Scott. Yet from the year before Mildred Pierce to the year after, the popularity of Scott more than doubled.

The Alchemy of Trends

In retrospect, some names look like trends waiting to happen. Zachary’s biblical origins gave it roots. (It’s the English form of Zechariah, the name of multiple biblical figures including a prophet and the father of John the Baptist.) The striking Z gave it flair, and the friendly nickname Zach kept it down to earth.

Yet no matter a name’s virtues, it takes an initial spark to catch parents’ attention and get the ball rolling—which is where celebrities come in. An actor or character introduces a name to a large segment of the population at once. If conditions are right, the initial spark can take on a life of its own.

Maybe Zachary was destined to become popular with or without Zachary Scott. Maybe. But if you have a Zachary (or Scott) in your life, you might want to give thanks, and perhaps pay tribute with a screening of Mildred Pierce.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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  • LikeToPivotPivot
    LikeToPivotPivot September 21, 2023 at 8:24 am

    What is the middle ages origin of the use of Scott as a first name? Does it have an origin other than the surname?

    I think Mildred Pierce also had an effect on the names Veda and Monte/Monty. I was looking for the inspiration for Monte Melkonian’s name (born 1957) when I learned about the movie’s influence.

    • HungarianNameGeek
      HungarianNameGeek September 21, 2023 at 4:07 pm

      Reaney & Wilson _A Dictionary of English Surnames_ s.n. Scott says there was an Old English given name “Scott”, but doesn’t go into any more detail than that.

  • Elizabeth September 21, 2023 at 7:57 pm

    My daughter had four boys in her high school calculus class named Zachary. One day someone from administration came over the intercom and asked Zachary to come to the office. The four boys looked at each other, shrugged, rose as one and walked out of the room.

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