What’s happening with the choice of baby names in England & Wales?

Earlier this month, there Office of National Statistics (ONS) published its annual list for the choice of baby names last year. There are some interesting trends.

First of all, astonishingly the most popular boys’ name and the most popular girls’ name are essentially the same (Oliver and Olivia) – what is technically known as cognates – and these names have been in the top two for their gender for the last 10 years. Is this the case in any other nation?

Second, it is striking how traditional most of the names are for both boys and girls, although for the boys it is interesting that the familiar form of names rather than the original version is often preferred – Harry instead of Harold, Jack instead of John, Charlie instead of Charles. Third, in the case of girls, eight of the top 10 names end with the letter ‘a’ and six contain the letter ‘l’. 

On the other hand, the name John (my father’s name), which was the most popular boys’ name until the end of the Second World War and is still the most common male name in Britain for the poulation as a whole, is nowhere in the top 100 names in the 2018 listings, while David – which is the second most common name in Britain – slipped out of the top 50 of names chosen for baby boys born in 2004 and has only recently come back (it is currently 49th).

Similarly Margaret – the most common female name in the population as a whole – does not even appear in the top 100 names chosen for girls these days, while Susan – the second most common name in Britain – is not even in the top 100 either. 

These observations underline how much fashion shapes the popularity of different names. Fashion is a stronger influence with girls’ names than those of boys. So, for example, in the last decade or so, Ivy has soared to number 14 while Elsie has jumped to 22. Arthur has surged into the top 10 boys’ names for the first time since the 1920s, and Ada has jumped into the girls’ top 100 for the first time in a century too, both perhaps inspired by characters in the BBC television drama “Peaky Blinders”.

It should be noted that the ONS produces its ranking of the popularity of names using the exact spelling of the name given at birth registration. If one combines the numbers for names with very similar spellings, a very different picture is revealed.

For boys, combining the occurrence of Mohammed, Muhammad, Mohammad & Muhammed plus eight other spellings of the names would put it in first place – a reflection of the changing ethnicity of the British population and the powerful trend for Muslim families to name their son after the Prophet. Similarly, if one combines the occurrence of Isabella, Isabelle, Isabel and Isobel, one would find the name top of the girls’ list and, if one took Lily and Lilly together, the name would come fifth, while Darcie, Darcey and Darcy would boost that name’s ranking. 

Also it is interesting to note that names are becoming more diverse: less than half (45%) of babies had a name within the top 100 lists in 2018, down from two thirds (67%) in 1996.

I’m fascinated by the choice of names and amazed at the variety of naming practices around the world. You can read my comprehensive study of this subject here.


  • Janet

    Speaking with a German and an Austrian friend recently, the subject of names came up, and they both commented how confusing it is that there are a number of names in English that can apply to either gender. Just from a letter or email, and not being familiar with the nuances of spelling, knowing how to address Leslie/Lesley, Robin/Robyn, Lindsey/Lindsay is tricky, without even contemplating Hillary!

  • Roger Darlington

    I can understand their confusion, Janet. They would probably struggle more with Chinese names!


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