It's getting harder to choose a unique name, science says

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Modern parents want a unique baby name, but it's becoming much harder to find one. That's according to a new study of over 20 million UK monikers, recently published in the journal PLOS One.

"Names act as identity stereotypes and affect perceptions of moral character, professional competence, educational ability, and physical attractiveness," the authors write in the paper, explaining that the aim of the research was to examine influences on name choices within the UK over the past 170 years. 

A team from the University of Edinburgh analysed first and middle name data for approximately 22 million people born in England and Wales between 1838 and 2014. They also mined a complete population sample of births registered between 1996 and 2016 from the UK Office for National Statistics.

Here are some of their key findings:

Names taken from the Bible have declined:

  • The cultural influence of Christianity has altered in the UK over the past century, with names from the Bible declining. As such, you won't find many of the names popular in the 19th century on class rolls in 2018. We're talking Old Testament male names Cephas, Enoch, and Theophilus, and female names Hephzibah, Tryphena, and Zilpah, as well as Christmas and Easter, Charity, Faithful, Mercy, Prudence, and Virtue. Perhaps unsurprisingly this mirrors Aussie data too. According to McCrindle, while 20 years ago all five of the top boys names were from the Bible (Joshua, Daniel, Matthew, James and Thomas), today, just six of the top twenty boys' names can be found in the Bible (Noah, James, Thomas, Ethan, Alexander and Samuel). For girls, the proportion of names from the Bible has also declined from three (Sarah, Rebecca and Hannah) 20 years ago to just Chloe in 2017.

Modern parents want their babies to stand out with a different first name:

  • In the data set from births taken between 1996 and 2016, there's an increase in what the researchers term "forename diversity" or the ratio of the number of unique first names to total number of births per year.
  • Around 65 per cent of names given to babies in this same set are registered to fewer than 10 babies.
  • About four per cent of names appear in only one of the 20 years. Abbiegayle (only recorded in 1998), Abagael (1999), Abygayle (2000), Abaigael (2004), and Abbygael (2013). "This suggests that in the present day UK, one of the more desirable properties of a name is its distinctiveness," the authors note.
  • Many of these unique names are "novel coinages" or variations on existing names. Think: Hollee, Holley, Holli, Hollie and Holly. (An Aussie equivalent is Jackson/Jaxon/ Jaxson, number nine in 2017.)

Hyphenated names are on the increase:

  • In the ongoing quest for unique monikers, there's been an increase in hyphenated first names from 2.5 per cent in 1996 to 9.1 per cent in 2016. Top choices in 2017 for girls include: Amelia-Rose, Isla-Rose, Ella Rose and Lily-Rose. (Rose is registered as a second name to 409 different first names.)  Tommy-Lee, Alfie-James, Oliver James and Rily-James ranked highest for boys.

We like familiar names - until they're too familiar:

  • The names Emma, Emily and Samuel peaked in both the late 19th century and the late 20th centuries.(Interestingly, Emily dropped out of the Australian top ten in 2017 for the first time in a decade.) The authors suggest this might have something to do with the "feedback hypothesis". Basically, if we're exposed to a name a lot, then we tend to like it more. "This predicts that name choice is to some extent a function of exposure - popular names are liked because they are popular, and become more popular because they are liked," the authors write. This only lasts for so long, however. Beyond this point, names decline in popularity because they may be seen as "over-used." (Think Isabella, in Australia.)

Modern names fall out of favour faster:

  • Modern day name choices alter more rapidly in popularity than in previous generations. The authors write, "rarer names are chosen primarily because they are rare - but over time this increases their exposure, decreasing their appeal."
  • Naming fads are often linked to celebrities. The moniker Kylie became more common after Kylie Minogue appeared on Neighbours in 1987. Britney peaked in 1999, coinciding with her debut album being released that year, with similar patterns found for Miley and Rhianna.  Tyrion (2011), Sansa (2012), Sandor (2013), and Brienne (2014) all appeared in classrooms thanks to the series Game of Thrones. "Contemporary naming vogues are short-lived with many name choices striking a balance between recognisability and rarity," the authors note.

Names we use today looked quite different in the 19th century:

  • One "cluster" of data from the 19th century contained six recognisable names with spelling not used today: Cathrine, Ellinn, Feargus, Hesther, Jenney, and Margarett.

"Collectively, shifting patterns of name choice provide a fascinating insight into changes in societal values, personal tastes and ethnic and cultural diversity from the Victorian era to the present day," said lead author Stephen J Bush of the study's findings. "The speed with which modern name choices fall in and out of favour reflects their increased exposure and people's ongoing desire for distinctiveness."

You can take a look at the study's data in this interactive graph: