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Cleveland Evans: Spencer has proven it's a name for all ages

Cleveland Evans: Spencer has proven it's a name for all ages

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In Pablo Larrain's drama, the Twilight actress plays Princess Diana who is struggling to get through three days with the royal family over Christmas at the Sandringham estate in the early '90s.

Will Spencer’s team win the state championship? Fans find out Monday.

“All American,” a television drama about high school football players in Los Angeles, starts its fourth season then. Starring Daniel Ezra as Spencer James, it’s based on the life of NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger (born 1988). Last season’s cliffhanger ended with Spencer’s team running onto the field to face Beverly Hills High.

Spencer is an English surname meaning “dispenser,” the official on a noble estate who disbursed provisions. All estates had a spencer, so it’s a common surname. Almost 140,000 Americans bore the last name Spencer in 2010, ranking it 199th.

Noble English Spencers trace their ancestry to Sir John Spencer, a wealthy livestock trader who purchased the Althorp estate in 1508.

King Henry VIII knighted him in 1519. One of his descendants married a daughter of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. The surname changed to Spencer-Churchill, and the family spawned British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965).

The line of descendants who inherited Althorp became the Earls Spencer. John Spencer (1924-1992), 8th Earl, was father of Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997). The film “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as Diana, debuts Nov. 5.

When surnames were adopted as first names around 1700, boys named Spencer appeared. It was soon more popular in the United States. The 1850 census found 3,868 Americans with the first name Spencer, while in 1851, there were only 1,116 in Britain, when the total populations were near equal.

In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly name lists start, Spencer ranked 282nd. It receded to about 460th in the 1930s.

Hollywood star Spencer Tracy (1900-1967) revived the name a bit. After he won back-to-back Oscars for “Captains Courageous” and “Boys Town” in 1937 and 1938, Spencer rose 45% to 345th in 1939.

Spencer plateaued until 1968, when Spencer Haywood (born 1949) scored a then-record 145 total points to help the USA win its seventh consecutive gold medal in Olympic basketball.

Spencer W. Kimball (1895-1985) became the 12th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in December 1973. In 1978, he had a revelation allowing those of African descent to be ordained as Mormon priests. This made Spencer a top-50 name in Utah in 1979. National rankings rose to 214th in 1985.

Television series “Spenser for Hire,” starring Robert Urich as a Boston private-eye, ran 1985-88. Created by bestselling novelist Robert B. Parker in 1973, Spenser never reveals his first name. 1986 was the first of 10 years that spelling Spenser made the top thousand list. Main spelling Spencer rose to 106th in 1989.

Spencer’s peak year for newborns was 1998, when it surged 23% to rank 84th. Perhaps Princess Diana’s death helped bring the name Spencer to mind. It’s also possible that the film “Star Kid,” in which 12-year-old Spencer Griffith (Joseph Mazzello) gains superhero powers from an alien spacesuit, contributed to the name’s peak. Though the film was a box office flop, child heroes often inspire baby names.

Spencer’s occasionally given to girls — most famously to Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario), the lead character of teen mystery thriller “Pretty Little Liars” (2010-17). She’s surely why Spencer made the top thousand list for girls in 2017.

Spencer’s now receding, ranking 316th in 2020. Still, its two centuries of regular use qualify it as an All-American name.


What's in a name? Cleveland Evans takes a look

Omaha World-Herald: Inspired Living

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