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?
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.
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.
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.