How Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders and the Duke of Sussex influence baby names – Nick Stripe

The ONS monitors annual trends in baby names.
The ONS monitors annual trends in baby names.
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HERE at the Office for National Statistics we publish and rank the names given to every baby born in England and Wales.

Oliver and Olivia have been the most popular names given to baby boys and girls in recent years and this remains so.

Nick Stripe has studied the latest trends in baby names.

Nick Stripe has studied the latest trends in baby names.

Every year, many commentators conclude that if you add up all the different ways of spelling Muhammad it would be the most popular boys’ name.

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There is a clear rationale for doing so, as each spelling simply reflects an alternative transliteration of the name from different languages into English.

We don’t add together names with similar spellings, or names with the same historic derivation. To do so would soon take us into the realms of subjectivity.

The Duke of Sussex continues to influence the names of baby boys - he was christened Prince Henry but has always been known as Harry.

The Duke of Sussex continues to influence the names of baby boys - he was christened Prince Henry but has always been known as Harry.

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Adding up all the different ways of spelling Oliver last year, for example, including shortened versions such as Ollie, would have pipped all the Muhammads.

You can try the same with all the Harrys, Harris’ and Harrisons. Some might even want to add in all the Henrys as well. Prince Harry is called Henry, after all.

The problem with disappearing down this interesting rabbit hole is that we miss out on so much.

To what extent do TV shows like Downton Abbey influence baby names?

To what extent do TV shows like Downton Abbey influence baby names?

Back in 1996, when we first published annual lists of baby names with full counts, the top boys’ name was Jack.

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There were 10,779 baby Jacks, 3.2 per cent of all baby boys born that year. Now the number one name is given to only half that proportion of baby boys. About one in four baby boys were given a name in the top 10 in 1996, whereas now it is only about one in eight.

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So what is going on with this increasing diversification? A number of intertwining changes to our culture and society are likely to be influencing our choices.

Firstly, there has been a decline in Christianity and church attendance. Hugely popular names from the 20th century such as John, Paul, Mark, Matthew, Simon, Christopher and Peter all had clear roots in the Gospels and Saints. Most are now well outside the top 100 names for boys.

Secondly, the influence of popular and celebrity culture has grown and grown.

Names once considered old fashioned have made a remarkable comeback, particularly those linked to TV shows such as Downton Abbey or Peaky Blinders.

Previously unusual names from TV and film, such as Aria or Arya (Game of Thrones) and Luna (Harry Potter), have taken off.

The influence of the names of our favourite actors, characters, musicians and sports stars can be seen sprinkled throughout the lists, as can those of reality TV stars or YouTube vloggers. In many cases, these originate from beyond our national boundaries.

Thirdly, we seem to be striving for originality and individuality as much as conformity. We appear to try to be unique, as much as to follow the crowd.

More than 60,000 different baby names are registered every year, about twice as many as 20 years ago. We give our babies names like Jax, Orion, Winter and Nevaeh (“heaven” spelt backwards) now.

Lastly, the number of babies born in England and Wales to non-UK born mothers has doubled in the last 20 years.

This has introduced new names such as Ayaan, Bodhi, Inaaya and Aizah. It has also introduced alternative spellings of names, for example Matei, Szymon, Oliwia and Zuzannah.

All of this means that the number one boys’ and girls’ names now would barely have scraped into the top 10 back in 1996.

Meanwhile, the number of babies named Muhammad (including variant spellings) has remained pretty consistent over the last 10 to 15 years. This is a key reason why Muhammad has climbed up the rankings in recent years.

Naming a son Muhammad follows a strong tradition in many Muslim families, although often their given name is not actually the name those same sons are known by.

The name Mohammed first appeared in the top 100 names for boys back in the 1920s. And although it’s been the exception to the rule, in the last few years even the number of Muhammads has begun to decrease, perhaps indicating the beginnings of male-naming diversification within Muslim communities too.

Sometimes it’s not only our statistics that shine a light on society. The reaction that follows them can be just as illuminating.

My plea is that the annual debate around Muhammad is rooted in its wider context. Social and cultural change across the whole country is the bigger, but more complex story here.

What we choose to name our children provides an immediately engaging and personal route into it.

Nick Stripe is Head of Life Events at the Office for National Statistics.