Rising up: a jellyfish in sea of the Farne Islands, England. Photo: Getty
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Jellyfish McSaveloy and the social mobility of surnames

Tracking the movement of second names shows how they can affect our life chances.  

Some people like the idea of having what we call a fun name,” such as “Jellyfish McSaveloy” and “Daddy Fantastic”, the Deed Poll website reveals. The UK is relatively permissive when it comes to “fun” names; Denmark, on the other hand, has compiled a list of approved baby names, and last year New Zealand published a selection of banned ones.

By the time a Jellyfish McSaveloy reaches their teens, you can be fairly certain they will be either thick-skinned or a hardened street fighter, but even more common names often hold clues to a person’s background and social standing. A girl named Eleanor is 100 times more likely to attend Oxford University than one named Jade. For economists, the links between certain names and the holder’s wealth and social status make them a useful research tool.

In 2005, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics, attempted to unpick how a person’s name affects his or her life chances. Although there is no evidence that a name can change your life, they believe that many babies’ names reflect their parents’ aspirations for them. The evidence: the names that are most popular among wealthier and highly educated Americans become popular among more disadvantaged groups within a few decades. The suggestion is that parents name their children after their more advantaged peers: “Whether they realise it or not, [they] like the sound of names that sound ‘successful’.”

A deeper investigation into names and social mobility was recently conducted by Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California, in his book The Son Also Rises. Standard measures of social mobility, which cover only one generation, have no way of discounting the element of luck that affects individual achievement, Clark argues. So he has attempted to measure social mobility over several centuries by tracking the movement of surnames.

In medieval England, many surnames, such as Baker, Plumber and Smith, described a person’s profession. In contrast, the elite often took their surnames from their ancestral home and the “super-elite” could trace their names to the Norman conquerors listed in the 1086 Domesday Book. By the late 1300s, surnames were often inherited; by analysing the names of those entering the great medieval institutions, such as the Church, parliament and Oxbridge, you can measure how many sons of artisans or manual labourers climbed the social ladder. Contrary to popular opinion, medieval England had the same “slow but persistent” rate of social mobility as modern Sweden, Clark argues.

Nor has Britain’s rate of social mobility changed much since then. Clark also traces the progression of a number of rare surnames, such as Bazalgette, Sotheby and Courtauld, that in 1858 were held by some of the UK’s wealthiest families. Even today, the surnames that in the mid-19th century were a mark of high social status are three times more common among MPs than among the rest of the population. Knowing that someone born in 1990 shares the same surname as someone born in 1813 who died wealthy is enough to predict that they are six times more likely than average to study at Oxbridge.

Clark shows that it can take between ten and 15 generations to erase family poverty or prosperity. As tempting as it might be to name your son Warren Buffett in the hope he will end up rich, it won’t make any difference. You might as well call him Jellyfish. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Responding to George Osborne's tax credit U-turn should have been Labour's victory lap

He changed the forecast, we changed the weather. But still it rains.

The Labour Party should have rested on its laurels in the Autumn Statement. While Gideon name checked his Tory colleagues for their successful lobbying, he should have been reading out the names of Labour members who changed his position.  I'll let the Tories have the potholes, (even though it was in Labour manifesto) but everything else was us. 

He stopped his assault on tax credits. Not because he woke up in his mansion in a cold sweat, the ghost of Christmas Future at the foot of his bed, ringing out the names of the thousands and thousands of children he would plunge into poverty. Nah, it's not that. It's as my sons might say "no way George, you got told!" The constant pressure of the Labour Party and a variety of Lords in a range of shades, supported by that media we are all meant to hate, did for him. It's the thousands of brilliant people who kept the pressure up by emailing politicians constantly that did it. Bravo us, boo nasty George!

As Baron Osborne thanked the Tory male MP for his brilliant idea, to spend the Tampax tax on women's services, I wanted to launch a tampon at his head. Not a used one you understand, I have some boundaries. He should have credited Paula Sheriff, the Labour MP for making this change. He should have credited all the brilliant women's groups, Yvette Cooper, Stella Creasy, Caroline Lucas and even little old me, for our constant, regular and persistent pestering on the subject of funding for refuges and women's services. 

On police cuts, his side should not have cheered him at all. We are now in a position when loud cheers are heard when nothing changes. So happy was his side that he was not cutting it, one can only conclude they really hate all the cutting they do. He should not have taken a ridiculous side swipe at Andy Burnham, but instead he should have credited the years and years of constant campaigning by Jack Dromey. 

I tell you what Georgie boy can take credit for, the many tax increases he chalked up. Increases in council tax to pay for huge deficit in care costs left by his cuts. Increases in the bit of council tax that pays for Police. Even though nothing changed remember. When he says levy or precept it's like when people say I'm curvy when they mean fat. It's a tax. 

He can take credit for making student nurses pay to work for free in the NHS. That's got his little privileged fingers all over it. My babies were both delivered by student midwives. The first time my sons life was saved, and on the second occasion my life was saved. The women who saved us were on placement hours as part of their training, working towards their qualifications. Now those same women, will be paying for the pleasure of working for free and saving lives. Paying to work for free! On reflection throwing a tampon at him is too good, this change makes me want to lob my son's placenta in his face.

Elsewhere in Parliament on Autumn Statement day Jeremy Hunt, capitulated and agreed to negotiate with Student Doctors. Thanks to the brilliant pressure built by junior doctors and in no small part Heidi Alexander. Another disaster averted, thanks to Labour.

I could go on and on with thanks to charities, think tanks, individual constituents and other opposition MPs who should have got the autumn cheers. We did it, we were a great and powerful opposition, we balanced the pain with reality. We made Lord sorry the first Lord of the Treasury and his stormtroopers move from the dark side. We should have got the cheers, but all we got was a black eye, when a little red book smacked us right in the face.