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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Mister Lizard is not at home to bailiffs – he is eating salmon pâté by the river

Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”?

Summer’s nearly over. I look at the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the back terrace of the Hovel. I have been here long enough to use the terrace as a gnomon marking the passage of the year. I need, like the protagonists of Withnail and I, to go to the countryside to rejuvenate.

Last week when the Perseids were meant to be in full flow I asked frantically on a social medium for people to chum me along on a midnight walk on Hampstead Heath. In the end my new friends A— and her husband, C—, together with his new friend (whose initial I have forgotten, but he is Australian, if that helps), stepped up to the plate and after a couple at the Flask we went on a wide-ranging tour, which was a bust as far as seeing meteors – or my favourite tree – went, but was still hugely enjoyable. At about 2 am they packed me into an Uber and I went home happy, but I still felt as if I could do with more countryside.

The next few days made me even more anxious to get out of London. There are ominous signs that some serious roadworks are going to be taking place outside my bedroom window any day now. A bailiff came and rang the doorbell and I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to say that Nicholas Lezard was not at home at the moment and, is, in fact, on a walking tour of Patagonia now I come to think of it, due back some time next year. I just took the piece of paper into my hands as if it were a chicken come home to roost.

The previous day, presumably the same bailiff had come round and asked if Mr Lizard was in, and my housemate gallantly – and quite truthfully – said “no”. (Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”? Maybe it’s because they haven’t ever been.) In addition, as I said last week, the cleaning lady is on holiday and the Hovel is starting to look distinctly seedy.

So, then I get a call from a person who once featured quite prominently in this column, some time ago. This person is bored and wants me to go to his or her town and alleviate his or her boredom. This person and I parted company in circumstances that were far from ideal some time ago, and only recently have diplomatic relations been resumed.

It is too late, I say, for me to get on the train now; but when I have reviewed the book I am meant to be reviewing, I will hop on the train tomorrow around noon. And so I do, despite some monkey business from the departures board at King’s Cross, which tells passengers the 12:44 has been cancelled, then hasn’t been, then has, then hasn’t after all, while the 12:14 has slipped away like a thief in the night without telling anyone it was doing so.

I wonder if my return to the town of ——— is wise. As a dog returneth to its vomit, so doth a fool return to his folly. And the burnt hand fears the fire. Look, I say to myself, all we’re doing is going to have a picnic by the river. As we buy our supplies, the stallholder at the market asks if I am my companion’s husband. “No, he’s my picnic buddy,” he or she replies. “Never heard it called that before,” says the stallholder.

And the day passes perfectly pleasantly. We have two bottles of wine, cheese and smoked salmon pâté with crusty bread. People in punts drift past us, with varying degrees of competence. I remember it is A-level results day and call the eldest boy to ask how he’s done. He’s done well enough, it turns out, to get a place at university, though he feels obliged to point out that his results came in exactly a year ago. This is the kind of thing that happens when the number of children you have exceeds your mental bandwidth.

Later on, a porter from the college behind which we are picnicking asks me if I am a member, or an alumni. “Alumnus,” I correct him gently, hoping that this should establish my credentials. He asks for my name, and he radios the porters’ lodge to check my veracity. For some reason it takes him several goes to get my name right.

One of these goes is “Lizard”. We offer him some cheese, but he refuses, on the grounds that he has just had a banana and a cup of tea. I could live in a guest room here, I reflect, at not much higher rent than one pays in London. And the beauty of it is that the police, and presumably bailiffs, have to ask permission to go through the gates. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser