Mark Liberman at the Log has a post on “the changes over time in fashions for given names. It’s obvious that things change — but it’s less obvious whether these changes are cyclic. It makes sense that out-of-fashion names might come back after a generation or two — but does this really happen on a regular basis?” He crunched some data and his answer, rather surprisingly, is no: “Basically, it seems that names come and names go, and sometimes names come and go — but it doesn’t seem to happen very often that names come and go and come again, at least within the 131-year time period covered by this dataset.” It’s sad (to me) to see the popularity of a fine old name like Mary plummeting on his corrected graph during the decades after WWII, though its decline hasn’t been as drastic as that of Minnie (which essentially vanished over the course of the 20th century).
In the comments, Mark Etherton linked to Douglas A. Galbi’s Given Name Frequency Project (“A given name, which forms part of a contemporary personal name, is generally given to a person shortly after birth, and given names are seldom changed. Given names thus provide a means for disciplined, quantitative study of information economies across major social, economic, and technological changes”), which features a paper called “Long-Term Trends in Given Name Frequencies in England and Wales” that I recommend to your attention—it has tables of frequencies going back a thousand years, and the findings are remarkable: “since early in the nineteenth century, the frequency distribution of personal given names in the UK has evolved differently than it did over the previous eight centuries. Simple indicators of this change are the trend in the popularity (frequency relative to the total number of names in the sample) of the most frequent names. The popularity of the most frequent name, the three most frequent names, and the ten most frequent names show no trend from circa 1300 to 1800. Since then all these measures have dropped dramatically….” The conclusion has some interesting thoughts:

Although recent work on personal given names in England has emphasized name-sharing practices for understanding the frequency distribution of given names (Smith-Bannister, 1997), name-sharing practices have little direct relationship to the frequency distribution of names. Naming a significant share of children after parents, or after godparents, are equally consistent with a high or low popularity of the most frequent names. Similarly, having names freely chosen, i.e. chosen in absence of norms giving high value to the name of a person in a specific social position in relation to the person to be named, could produce high or low popularity of the most frequent names. The most that can be said for name-sharing is that a norm of naming after parents creates additional inertia in name popularity. Name popularity and its long-term evolution depend on factors other than name-sharing. The evolution of the name frequency distribution over time is a complicated dynamic system. Such systems can, in some circumstances, be highly sensitive to a particular factor, while in other circumstances, be totally unaffected by that factor. Moreover, boundary conditions, such as a small share of naming done in violation of prevailing norms, can determine the over-all state of the system.
Analysis of long-term trends in personal given names in the UK suggests that significant changes in the information economy occurred in conjunction with the broad social and economic changes called the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution is associated with more rapid growth in population. The population of England in 1800 was about 50% greater than in 1300, while its population in 2000 was about six times greater than in 1800. The Industrial Revolution is also associated with much more rapid growth in income: real economic income per person probably increased by about a factor of four from 1300 to 1800, and by about a factor of 100 from 1800 to 2000. But populations of much different sizes show similar naming patterns …, and it is not clear how the level of income itself would effect naming. The Industrial Revolution also produced major changes in social networks and the social context of personal activity….

At any rate, do check out the name tables.


  1. David Mitchell gave an interesting three-minute talk on names (he has a television comedy called Peepshow). I agree with him that their significance in relation to that which is named disappears very quickly.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    My wife says we ought to acquire David Mitchell as a house friend. It would be nice with someone like him sitting in the corner of the sofa a couple of times a week being witty and interesting.

  3. Interesting, and somewhat counter-intuitive. Someone born like me in 1958 can’t help but be struck by the current retro trends in UK baby names:
    Victorian girl’s names that, in my own youth, would have suggested a Darby and Joan Club: Ruby, Daisy, Maisie, Lily, Freya, Olivia..
    Boy’s names of a British Empire or Dickensian cast: Jack, Harry, Charlie, William, James and George. – Samuel, Oliver, Noah, Alfie. Profoundly unfashionable names for most of my lifetime. (All these names are from the current top 20 girls and boys.)

  4. It IS counter-intuitive, because “grandparent names” – Michael, Keith, Susan, Stephen, Ann/e, Alan, Carol/ine/yn, David, Christine, John, Gillian, Robert, Catherine/Katherine, names that were hugely popular in England in the 1940s and 1950s, when today’s grandparents were born – are all in steady decline, almost to vanishing point in some cases: there were only three Gillians born in England and Wales in 2010. Meanwhile “great-grandparent names”, as Michael points out, are on the rise – even names such as Herbert, Albert and Reginald. But not all old names are back: Edith is up, Ethel isn’t (only three Ethels in 2010). Arthur is back, Algernon, not.

  5. Narmitaj says:

    David Mitchell and Victoria Coren recently announced their engagement; as a sort of intelligent TV celeb power couple, the spotlight will be on them namechoicewise if they reproduce. Coren, for those who don’t know or remember, presents the tricky BBC4 quiz Only Connect and was also in charge of the BBC OED Wordhunt programme Balderdash and Piffle (and she also once won a million dollars playing poker).
    Mitchell seems to be right that TV shows and bands can have daft names but you get used to them; The Beatles is a bit silly looked at dispassionately (a mash of “beat” group and The Crickets), but at the same time it’s unimaginable they’d be called something else. Individuals, as he says, should start with something a bit less idiosyncratic – it’s little surprise Zowie Bowie prefers to be known as Duncan Jones.
    My two brothers and I have names of normalish blokeitude, as Mitchell puts it. But a harmless little “rule” did emerge halfway through the naming timescape – my father was Thomas, my older brother John, and then my parents noticed a “silent h” theme developing, so I am Nicholas and my little brother Anthony.

  6. dearieme says:

    Where did the “h” in Anthony come from? It’s not there in Antonio. Come to that, there’s no “h” in Nicolas. Is it some obscure allusion to the fact that all Englishmen drop “h”s (though admittedly at different frequencies).

  7. Narmitaj says:

    @dearime: “The customary English version of spelling ‘Nicholas’, using an ‘h’, first came into use in the 12th century and has been firmly established since the Reformation”, acc to Wikipedia. And in the 12thC the “English” political class was mostly French-speaking, so I doubt it’s anything to do with English people dropping h’s. (Also, I didn’t know Colin was a male variation until now).
    Anthony with an h came about in the 16thC, apparently. “In 1944, it was the sixth most popular male name and was still as high as 14th in 1964. However, by 2004 it had fallen out of the top 100”. My brother was born in 1959.

  8. dearieme says:

    Thank you, Narmitaj, for reporting the timing. But the reason?
    Yours faithfully

  9. Cherie Woodworth says:

    If you study name frequencies, it’s important to keep in mind that some cultures have pretty specific naming traditions (which will definitely influence the frequency of names): naming after paternal or maternal grandparents, after god fathers and god mothers, after living vs. dead relatives.
    In the Russian case (as famously illustrated in the opening passage to Gogol’s “Overcoat”), the child was supposedly named after the saint’s day close to their birth or baptism; or a son is named after a father. Hence Akakii Akakievich (hero of the aforementioned story).
    In fact, names were often a good indication of class: among the upper nobility (in the sample I studied, which was over 1600 princes), male names clustered heavily around a half-dozen most popular. More than 1 in 10 of these princes was named Ivan (12%). The other high-frequency names are Semen, Fedor, Mikhail, Andrei, Iurii, Dmitrii, and Aleksandr.
    Patronymics didn’t do much to sort people out. Among princes in this cohort, there were more Ivan Ivanovich’s than there were Borises (with any patronymic).
    Peasants, on the other hand, used a wide variety of names, sometimes even invented, and thus by modern standards showed more “individuality” in their names.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    The problem with virtually all of the datasets out there is that they track “official” names because that’s what the most complete records tend to collect. So in England “John” is now way down and “Jack” is currently popular, but in prior times there were lots and lots and lots of males universally known as “Jack” whose official name was John. Increasing willingness to give what was once a nickname as the official name is itself an interesting trend, but it for some purposes messes up the comparability of the data over time.
    Similarly, because these datasets focus only on official first names, they do not track the extent to which there were disambiguating practices for extremely common ones. E.g. on the female side, Elisabeth/Elizabeth and Catherine/Katherine had quite a dizzying array of available nicknames (often bestowed in infancy simultaneously with the official name), and at least in the 20th century U.S. many Marys (before that name’s sad decline from prominence) were universally known as Mary Kate, Mary Sue, Mary Pat, Mary Jo etc and never Mary alone. (The comparable pattern for males is very markedly Southern, as when two Jameses are distinguished because one is universally called “Jim Bob” and the other “Jimmy Lee.”)

  11. J.W. Brewer says:

    Another thing that’s probably even more difficult to track reliably is that distinctive set of common 20th century American nicknames for boys that do not correlate with any particular official name (but are often, albeit not solely, given for intrafamily disambiguation reasons to boys who are officially so-and-so Jr. or III): e.g., Buck, Chip, Skip, sometimes Terry (less likely than in the UK to be someone formally named Terence), sometimes Rusty (often from official name Russell but often instead based on red hair). These names seem to be almost totally absent among my daughters’ male schoolmates, compared to my own generational cohort, but I don’t want to overgeneralize from my little corner of the country (although that could also at least in part be because the ethnic mix is a bit different where I live now than where I grew up?) — but how to get nationwide data that is comparable over time?

  12. Narmitaj says:

    @ dearimho – digging around, I see apparently “The normal English version of spelling “Nicholas”, using an “h”, is derived from one way of transliterating the diacritic on the ‘o’ of the original Greek word Νικόλαος” – that’s from , which is largely the same as the Wikipedia text plus that sentence.
    As for Anthony, the same site (php?q=Anthony) says “The Greek word ανθος (anthos), meaning “flower” is considered by some sources to be the meaning of the name; others claim it is from the ancient Greek name Anthonios, king of Achaia”. Most think it’s from Roman Antonius without an h; maybe it is from both.
    I suppose somethimes you can be on an iding to no-thing looking 4 reasons in Engliş spelling, but it seems there are some hear.

  13. cherie says:

    >there were lots and lots and lots of males universally known as “Jack” whose official name was John

  14. My great uncle Jack’s actual given names were … Leonard Gordon.

  15. Then again, my grandfather’s first name was Woldemar (I bear it as a middle name). His American-born wife called him Wally; his coworkers called him Bill, because he used to sign his blueprints “W. Schultz”.

  16. Garrigus Carraig (f/k/a komfo,amonan) says:

    My great-grandfather Owen had a son, Owen Jr., who went by Buddy. He in turn had a son, Owen III, who also went by Buddy.
    My grandfather Isaac Kenneth (Ike) had a son, Isaac Charles, who goes by Chucky. He in turn has a son, Charles Maurice, who also goes by Chucky.
    My family: Not great at disambiguation.

  17. A childhood friend of mine went by the name of Skeezix (even his parents called him that), because he closely resembled the Gasoline Alley character. His father and grandfather had gone by the same name. This is interesting in hindsight, because the Gasoline Alley characters age in real time: Skeezix first appears as an infant in 1921, and is consequently in his early 90s today. So the application of the term to my friend must have reflected not what the Skeezix character looked like in 1965 or so, but what he looked like in the 1920-30 period.
    So it’s more accurate to say that my friend was named Skeezix because he resembled his father, who was named Skeezix because he resembled his father, who was named Skeezix because he resembled the cartoon character.

  18. dearieme says:

    As a boy I knew a family of grandfather “Old Tom”, father “Young Tom”, and son “Wee Tom”.

  19. The problem with virtually all of the datasets out there is that they track “official” names because that’s what the most complete records tend to collect.
    That’s a problem if you’re interested in what people are actually called in daily life, but not if (as here) you’re trying to track the percentages of official names over time.

  20. I’d like to see similar studies for given names in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. I have the vague impression that Chinese given names that are either monosyllabic (Dan, Hong, etc.) or reduplicated (Ling Ling) have become more fashionable over the past couple decades. I have similar impressions that fewer Japanese given names end in the gender-specific -o or -ko than they once used to.

  21. J.W., I can tell you that for the most part boy’s nicknames like “Chip”, “Skip”,”Rusty”, etc. were already mostly obsolete in 1970s-80s New Hampshire (although I actually do have a friend/peer named “Chip”.) Maybe it’s television’s fault – because of the 50s sitcoms we saw in repeats growing up, all those names started to seem as “square” as expressions like “Gosh” and “Gee willickers!”

  22. dearieme says:

    Never mind: on this side of the Atlantic there’s still lots of innocent amusement whenever an American says “Hi, I’m Randy”.

  23. Bathrobe says:

    I heard recently that the Chinese government no longer allows two-syllable names (i.e., a single given name). The reason is obviously the proliferation of people with the same name. But I’m not sure how reliable that information is and where I could find something to back it up.

  24. J.W. Brewer says:

    hat: yes, but how many people in their heart of hearts are really more interested in tracking nominal/official names than in tracking what people are actually called? Isn’t the former interest often just making a virtue of necessity, given the limitations of the available data? (It may be true that we have lots of what-they-were-actually-called data available anecdotally for princes of Muscovy and other historical celebrities – we just don’t have the same sort of every-baby-baptized-in-that-parish-that-year complete sources of data, and one never knows how representative celebrity-anecdote data is going to be.)

Speak Your Mind