Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his May 23rd column, he looks at the history of the name Clark.
Clarke is another spelling of Clark, an English surname derived from “clerk.” Originally from “cleric,” Latin for “clergyman,” by 1200 it meant “anyone who could read and write.” In the 2010 census, 562,679 Americans had the last name Clark, making it the 27th most common surname. The 68,281 Clarkes ranked 281st.
When around 1800 the custom of turning surnames into male first names developed, boys named Clark appeared. In the 1850 United States census, first listing everyone by name, 7,757 men had the first name Clark, and 542 Clarke. Admiration for Revolutionary War general George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) and his younger brother William (1770-1838), leader of the Lewis & Clark expedition, helped its popularity.
Clarke was almost nonexistent as a girl’s name before 1991. That year, Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” featured Cynda Williams as Clarke Betancourt, one of Denzel Washington’s two love interests. Critic Vincent Canby said, “No one with such a fancy handle can be trusted in slick-movie fiction.” There were 22 American girls named Clarke in 1991, the first year ever there were more than four. Between nine and 25 arrived between 1992 and 2013.