By any other name

Source: Office for National Statistics

How did you name your children? Did you use traditional family names? Did you opt for a popular name or did you choose something that was deliberately less common? Or did you just go with something you liked the sound of?

Naming our children

With all three of our children – Isaac, Toby (Tobias) and Kara – Heather and I developed something of a ritual. In the final few weeks before her due date, we would both draw up long-lists of boys’ and girls’ names with the aid of one of those baby name encyclopedias, then go out for dinner and systematically compare lists before agreeing on a shortlist of 2-3 first/middle name combinations for each gender. Once the babies were born, we slept on the decision before selecting the names that felt ‘right’ the following morning.

We had two basic criteria for picking out our names. Firstly, we both had to agree. On the one hand this was easier said than done, as we were both quite picky. On the other, we quickly discovered that we both had a liking for relatively short and traditional names – no Jaydens, Kaydens, D’Jens or Dirty Dens for us. Secondly, our chosen first names had to hit a sweet spot where they were neither exceedingly rare nor excessively popular – we agreed they had to be outside the list of top 20 boys’ and girls’ names.

Baby names are a matter of public record, and the Office for National Statistics helpfully publishes lists of the top baby names every year. The lists for 2012 were published this morning.

Source: Office for National Statistics
Source: Office for National Statistics

Trends come and go

Being a data kind of guy, I find the trends in popularity over time interesting. The infographic above provides a quick overview of what was hot and what was not last year.

Amongst boys’ names, traditional names such as Oliver, Jack, Thomas, William and James remain steadfastly popular – all five were in the top ten in 2002 – while for girls Olivia, Jessica, Emily and Sophie have maintained a similar level of appeal. And yet Amelia, which has been the most popular girls’ name for each of the last two years, was only the 24th most popular girl’s name in 2002. Similarly Ava (number six in 2012) and Isla (eight) were both outside the top 200 ten years ago. Riley, currently the eighth most popular boy’s name, was ranked a lowly 122nd in 2002.

The causes of some trends are obvious, particularly those that relate to the names of famous people or popular fictional characters. Luke enjoyed a big spike in popularity at the back end of the 1970s. (Oddly, Darth never took off and Jar-Jar has never been popular at any time.) Equally, there are a lot of Jasons and Kylies in their mid-20s.

Others are more nebulous. For instance, there is no obvious rhyme or reason why Jacob has leapt from 30th to 5th in the past ten years, while Benjamin has fallen from sixth to 32nd and Joseph from 8th to 22nd. Formula 1 fans won’t be surprised by the surge in popularity of Jenson among boys (up 242 places to 54th in the past decade) but may be surprised to discover that Lewis, while still common, has slipped down the list in the same period (down 29 to 43rd) – and both are less popular than Sebastian, the first name of current F1 champion Vettel.

Some trends are indicative of our increasingly multicultural society. If you combine the totals of the three most frequently used variants of Muhammad/Mohammed/Mohammad, this would be the second most popular boy’s name. However, this is the only distinctly ethnic name in either gender’s top 100 list. (And no, it’s not due to the Mo Farah effect.)

Finally, a few names are conspicuous by their absence while others are clearly on the up. For instance, John is a far less common name than you might think, falling outside the top 100. Even going back 15 years, it was still a lowly 53rd. By contrast, 1,301 sets of parents named their daughter Lexi, meaning it has jumped from 1,659th to 46th in a decade.

I think we can also safely predict that, following the royal birth last month, George will experience a resurgence in popularity over the next couple of years. (It was the 12th most popular boy’s name last year.)

For what it’s worth, Isaac and Toby are currently the 30th and 49th most popular boy’s names (although our Toby is officially a Tobias, which is far less popular), while neither Kara or the more common variant Cara make the girls’ top 100 list.

So there you go. Fundamentally, naming your children remains a personal choice, albeit one which can be influenced by a number of external factors. There’s no reliable way of predicting whether today’s popular names will seem horribly dated by the time our children have their children, or whether older names will have returned to popularity. Who knows? In 30 years’ time, we may all be calling our kids Cedric, Edna and Voldemort.

Whatever happens, I can’t imagine my own kids with any other names. And neither, I suspect, can they.

Link: Baby Names, England & Wales, 2012 (Office for National Statistics)