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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.