The naming of baby George is likely to increase the popularity of the name, which currently ranks tenth. Photo: Getty.
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Top baby names: would you want your name to make the list?

Girls and boys names in the UK are becoming increasingly diverse - but does having a popular name make your life easier?

There was a point, growing up, when a quarter of the girls in my (admittedly small) year group was called Sophie. I longed for a more unusual name and, having been brought up Catholic, I briefly settled on Bernadette after Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. My younger brother, an Oliver, declared that he wanted to be named Eric McDick – an ingenious amalgamation of Eric, the dashing prince in the Little Mermaid, our Scottish surname, and my maternal Grandfather’s name.

It is something of a relief now that neither of us quite knew how to go about changing our names via deed poll - and not only because I'm no longer Catholic. (To the Bernadette McBain and Eric McDick I found on Google, I’m sorry.) Our parents were, however, deeply unimaginative and Sophie and Oliver are still among the most common children’s names. This year, 3,013 more Sophies were born in England and Wales and 6,949 Olivers, according to the latest ONS data. Sophie is still the ninth most popular girl’s name in the UK, and Oliver is the first, having overtaken Harry this year.

This year’s statistics show that Amelia, Olivia and Emily are the three most popular girls names respectively, with Oliver, Jack and Harry topping the list for the boys. If you were to add up the different common spellings of Mohammad/Mohammed/Mohammad it would reach first place for boys, however, with 8,385 born this year.

That said, it is becoming increasingly unusual to have a common name. Before the 1800s the first four baby names referred to half of all English men. According to 2012 statistics, the four most popular names for boys (Harry, Oliver, Jack, Charlie) accounted for just 7 per cent of English baby boys.  

Girls’ names are even more diverse than boys: more than 35,000 different girls’ names were registered in 2013, compared to 27,000 for boys. This has increased in the last decade: in 2003 the ONS recorded 21,000 boys names and 27,000 girls names.

Among the more unusual names are those inspired by TV or books: thanks to the popularity of Game of Thrones, for instance, there were 50 Khaleesis, four babies called Daenerys, 187 Ayras, five Sansas and three Catelyns. The ONS also notes the Harry Potter effect: there were 3 baby Dracos in 2011, and 3 little girls called Bellatrix born in 2013. The name Harper shot up in popularity following the birth of Harper Beckham (the well dressed daughter of Victoria and David). Cameron, meanwhile, has dropped down 70 places to number 93 in the decade to 2013 – a reflection of political sentiment, perhaps? I couldn’t find any Gideons in the top 1oo either.

This increasing diversity of baby names is good news for economists, especially as names are useful indicators of socio-economic background, something I’ve written about before. But what’s it like for those who have to survive primary school and beyond with a weird and wonderful name? Studies in the 1940s found that men with uncommon names were more likely to drop out of school and be lonely later in life.

Richard Zweigenhaft, a psychology professor at Guilford College in the US concluded in the 1980s that members of the upper-class in America with unusual surnames were more likely to be found in Who’s Who.  It’s hard to draw firm conclusions from this – are less privileged children born with strange names also more likely to pursue interesting or high-profile careers, or is it only helpful to be named Daenerys if your family is wealthy? His other studies showed that an unusual name was unlikely to have a negative effect on your life chances, but it did depend on both your specific name and your parent’s socio-economic background. The sociologist Dalton Conley believes that being teased for an unusual name can even have beneficial effects on personality development, by teaching children impulse control. He named his daughter “E” so that she could fill out the rest of her name when she was older. She stayed E

The problem is, it isn't only having an unsual name that can cause difficulties (or equally bring benefits to the bearers). There is evidence that in the UK, some employers discriminate against applicants with “foreign sounding” names – suggesting that anonymous CVs would be fairer. In an ideal world, we’d do more to ensure that whatever your parents call you will have no impact at all on your life. In a far from ideal world, I’ve found myself newly thankful for my name. It might be boringly common among women of my age (not to mention among dogs) but it probably will have very little impact on my life. 

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

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.