A good year for Slobodan, but Tony takes the biscuit

Last year the outright winner was Dodi. This year it does not even figure in the top 100
AT THE start of every year it is customary to bring you the most popular boy's and girl's names of the previous years. This is usually done by looking at the names of boys and girls in the "Births" columns, but as regular readers of this column will know, I prefer to consult the headlines to see which the really popular names are.

So whereas you may get the impression from other papers that the popular names are John and James, or Sophie and Lucy, a quick look at the papers will show you that such names are, in fact, extremely rare - among important people, at least. Indeed, some names that occur in headlines never occur in daily life at all - names like Sting and Madonna, and Scary and Boy. (These last are the first names of Ms Spice and Mr George respectively.)

One of the odd things about first names as found in the headlines is the speed with which they go in and out of fashion. One year the most common first name was Mr. It has never reoccurred. This was entirely due to the popularity that year of TV dramatisations of Jane Austen's novels, and all her heroes had the first name Mr (Mr Darcy etc). Last year the outright winner of boy's names was Dodi. This year it does not even figure in the top 100.

Another curiosity is the way in which politicians and leaders are rarely known by their first name. John Major was never called John by headline writers. Clinton is always Clinton, rarely Bill. That is why the name Bill does not figure in our top ten boy's names, even though the most important man in the world bears it. Even at the level of football management this is true. Glenn Hoddle would be recognisable if called Glenn, as there are very few Glenns in football, but he is always called Hoddle in print, never Glenn.

However, let us get straight to the main agenda of today's ceremony, and that is the grand announcement of the top 10 boy's names of 1998. Roll of drums. Fanfare. Thank you.

(Previous year's position in brackets, incidentally.)

1. Tony (11)

2. Charles (5)

3. Leonardo (-)

4. Saddam (-)

5. Zinedine (-)

6. Slobodan (-)

7. Peter (9)

8. Oskar (7)

9. Ken (6)

10. Helmut (-)

Tony's popularity is entirely due to Mr Blair's sudden rise to spring- heeled prominence. There are other Tonys around, such as Tony Banks, but they rarely feature.

Indeed, it would seem from a study of political first names that it is no help to ambition to have the same first name as a rival, or as your leader. Nobody called Margaret throve near Mrs Thatcher. John Redwood dwindled before John Major. And the only Edward near Edward Heath was Edward du Cann, and look what happened to him. No, we fear that Tony Banks's ambitions will have to be put on hold.

Leonardo has never featured in the list before, so well done, Mr di Caprio. Obviously the name Leonardo is a bit too Italian for the American audience, so already Mr di Caprio's first name is being shortened by the publicists to Lenny or even Leo, and we may never see Leonardo on the top 10 list again.

Most Americans, of course, think that di Caprio was named after a mutant turtle called Leonardo, as they have never heard of the artist Leonardo da Vinci.

(Incidentally, in the credits of an old Sergeant Bilko film the other day I spotted that the name of the director was a certain Al di Caprio. Any relation, I wonder?)

Zinedine is an even more unusual name than Slobodan, and would not figure here were it not for Mr Zidane's goal-scoring feats for France against Brazil in the World Cup final, in which he became the first person in history to become famous despite having both names beginning with Z.

Other names which flared into brief popularity were Salman and Yasser, Benjamin and Gerhard, Arsene and Menzies, and - very briefly - Enoch, after the publication of a life of the late Enoch Powell. Fergal was quite popular, as indeed was Fergie, which interestingly is a boy's name when used of football managers and a girl's name when used of duchesses. Ron was fleetingly fashionable for a week when a Welshman strayed on Clapham Common and George became fashionable when a pop star strayed in a Californian lavatory.

Tomorrow we come to the top 10 girl's names of 1998, the first year for many years in which Diana has not won outright. Or can she do it again posthumously? All will be revealed tomorrow!