How, And Why, Britain's Baby Names Are Getting More Diverse

We're calling our kids by a greater and more inventive range of names than ever before - why might this be happening?
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Name geeks and indecisive parents-to-be can breathe a sigh of relief - the annual list of the top 100 baby names given in England and Wales last year is out! This year, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), parents of boys were still smitten with an unchanged top trio of Oliver, Harry and George. Those with a baby girl to name were plumping for Olivia, Amelia and Isla (who replaced Emily at number 3). Leo replaced Thomas in the top 10 for boys, whilst Hunter and Ralph bumped Aaron and Jasper out of the top 100. Poppy usurped Jessica in the top 10 for girls, whilst Aurora, Orla, Edith, Bonnie, Lyla and Hallie took over Lexi, Zoe, Maddison, Sarah, Felicity and Lydia’s spots in the top 100.

Let’s get one thing straight: a quick look back at five hundred years of history shows that Brits have always agonised over naming the baby. Around the time of the Reformation, for example, parents started to reject Catholic saints’ names in favour of Protestant scriptural influences (much to the Vatican’s disgust). Over the eighteenth century, moralising essayists wrung their hands about lower-class oiks pinching the “fine names” of the aristocracy. During the Victorian period, many wily parents named their offspring strategically to ensure the patronage of wealthy relatives. And the explosion of US popular culture in the twentieth century brought a spike in names that seemed to breathe American prosperity and glamour. The present day is no different: the annual baby name list can offer rich insights into how Brits think about identity today – and their hopes and dreams for their children.

Much of the commentary you’ll see today will probably be goggling at the more unusual names on the list. And it’s true that there are hours of fun to be had in the ONS’s Excel spreadsheets. It’s not hard to imagine what the parents of three little Successes and three little Freedoms wanted for their daughters. Or to get an inkling of the politics of ten Corbyns, and the religious affiliations of seven Lucifers (both male). Meanwhile, seven Ts and seven Js (male, in both cases) at least won’t have a problem spelling their names.

But from my point of view - as an academic who studies the relationship between names and identity – there are deeper-buried stories that might be more worthy of our attention, and suggest more important societal shifts.

The headline for this year should simply read: DIVERSIFICATION. The Top Ten can sometimes look relatively unchanged year on year, give the impression that we’re a conservative lot who like to follow fashion – but bear in mind that it only accounts for about 13% of all names given that year for boys, and 10% for girls. Overall, there were a whopping 35,475 unique girls’ names and 28,222 unique boys’ names given in 2017. (For perspective, there were only 23,375 and 17,854, respectively, registered in 1999. So that’s a more than 50% increase in the number of names given to both sexes in the last eighteen years.) In the UK - unlike many other countries - there are no restrictions on what you can christen your children. It seems we’re taking advantage of that fact by calling them by a greater and more inventive range of names than ever before.

A few decades ago, it seemed that diversification in British naming was largely about class (although there are interesting trends around gender too, and studies conducted in the USA suggest that there might also be a lot to say about race and naming on this side of the pond). During the 1970s, a study found that ‘traditional’ names - such those popular among the Royal Family - were more common among upper and middle-class parents, who shunned the newly-minted ‘invented’ names - Darren, Wayne, Tracey and Kerry - that were popular with working-class parents.

Fifty years on, though, diversification has become far less of a clearly classed phenomenon. Unusual names are sometimes snobbishly dismissed as ‘chavvy’, but they’re also often mocked as the preserve of upper-class ‘yummy mummies’. In short, I suspect we’re now seeing a splintering of the baby name list across all class brackets.

Why might this be happening? One potential reason is the increased racial and cultural diversity of the UK. Another is the increased access to a range of mass media from around the world. Finally, I think there’s something to be said about the influence of trendsetters. Many popular celebrities are fond of calling their children by unusual or invented names, mining cities, colours, compass points and abstract nouns for ideas. Witness, in the last few years, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West picking ‘North’, ‘Saint’ and ‘Chicago’, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z going for ‘Blue’, ‘Sir’ and ‘Rumi’ (July 2017).

The impact of these specific names on the ONS list is minimal. But what I think we are copying is these trendsetters’ quest for individuality for their children - which we now associate with success, glamour, and uniqueness. There are even tools at our disposal to check the individuality of a favoured name – if you don’t mind disappearing down a rabbit-hole, see this very fun visualisation tool developed by data analyst Anna Powell-Smith.

Despite parents’ best efforts, however, all their careful scheming might be for nothing. Centuries of agonising around naming the baby may finally be coming to an end, as the baby starts to name itself. More people than ever are deciding for themselves, later in life, what they want to be called, either using a deed poll mechanism to change their names or relying on the UK’s legal laxity around naming to simply establish a new name “by reputation”. Trans people may want to mark their transition. Non-binary people may want to pick a gender-neutral name. A change of religion can mean a new identity, too. And of course, some simply decide they’d like a name that matches their personality better - something that makes them stand out, or makes them fit in.

It’s a well-worn cliché that millennials are a generation of job-hoppers - but it may turn out that their successors are name-hoppers too. At least that means the pressure’s off a bit, eh parents? Just enjoy picking that unique placeholder name – but maybe don’t get too attached to it.

Dr. Sophie Coulombeau is an academic, novelist and BBC New Generation Thinker