Britain’s divided nation is revealed in our baby names

In Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation, the author notes that on one English farm in 1114 the workers were listed as being called Soen, Rainald, Ailwin, Lemar, Godwin, Ordric, Alric, Saroi, Ulviet and Ulfac. By the end of the century all these names had disappeared.

Because the Normans had conquered England half a century earlier, all these men were easily identifiable as Anglo-Saxons just by their names. Likewise any William, Henry, Robert or Richard would have been a new arrival. Yet as inter-marriage blurred the distinctions, these names became instead class identifiers, although not for long, for such was the attraction of rising up in society where Anglo-Norman French was spoken that Norman names came to dominate. (Ackroyd records that at the beginning of the 12th century a boy from Whitby was recorded as changing his name from Tostig to William because he was being bullied.) Of the old English names, only Alfred, Edmund, Edwin and Edgar survived, while Edward thrived, largely thanks to the cult of Edward the Confessor.

None of those Anglo-Saxon farmhand names make the top 100 baby names in England and Wales 2011, published today, yet the annually-released list does show that, for the first time in nine centuries, English people are easily identifiable by class solely by their name, since most in the 2011 list have strong class biases either way.

(There is a smaller, third group of Islamic names, chiefly the variations of Mohammed. Every year there is a slightly pedantic argument about whether Mohammed, if one includes all eight variations, is number one. If that’s the case, some argue, then the variations of Oliver and Jack might also be included, pushing Mohammed behind. However Mohammad is a variation while Ollie is a diminutive, and the latter are generally considered new names in themselves. Jack was originally a diminutive of John or possibly James – Jacques in French – while Bella is a diminutive of Isabella, which is itself a diminutive of Elizabeth, which is a translation of a Latin translation of a Greek translation of a Hebrew name, Elisheva.)

Our names mark us by generation as well as class, since working-class names such as Callum*, Kayden and Reece (sometimes called “chav” names, although that’s inaccurate since the non-chav working class increasingly use them) seem to rise and fall quicker than more traditional middle-class names. Three of the top 30 girls names of 2001 – Jade, Shannon and Courtney – have fallen out of the top 100, and I imagine Lacey, Lexi and Madison will be well on their way out in ten years’ time too. Working-class names also have more diversity and spelling variation, which is why the most popular names on the list seem disproportionately posh.

There are other patterns that may suggest something among the animal spirits (or not). I’ve written before about the trend towards Victorian names, but Old Testament names have also come back into fashion; although Joshua has slightly fallen back from its enormous popularity in the 1990s, it is now joined by Jacob (7) Noah (16) and Caleb (89).

Such trends often have wider meaning. In Ireland, for example, the Gaelicisation of names during the late 20th century reflected both the declining power of the Church and the rising popularity of a vaguely republican national narrative. Before that most people were named after popular saints, Mary, James, Patrick, Michael, John and Joseph being the most popular (Brendan and Kevin are Irish, but they are also important saints). Gaelic names are a bit problematic, because both in Ireland and England some have class associations which can be a handicap (there was also the issue that if you had a slightly odd-looking name that bore no relation to its pronunciation other English-speaking people would find it annoying, which they do).

Far more of a handicap are American ghetto names, a mystery looked at in Freakonomics, but like with African-American naming patterns, class-specific names in England are partly a question of pride (in oneself, background, area) but partly a recognition that the inevitable shake-up of meritocracy has slowed down. After all, if a mother really thought her daughter had a chance of making it to Cambridge, would she name her Merceydeez?

Social mobility will be achieved only when we all give our children the same names. That’s probably a long way off; maybe instead, like in Ireland, working-class people will look to authentic native names instead, and we’ll see the return of Ordric and Alric.

*working class in the south of England at least. Like lots of things, it’s less class conscious the further one gets from London

This article was published at Telegraph Blogs


  1. […] person named. There is also a good chance you will be able to gather some hints about their age, socio-economic background, and perhaps even their race. In addition to the factual information the name may suggest, it may […]

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