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.