What's in a baby name? The cyclical trends and spread of unusual names

One of the things that feeds the fashion cycle of names is celebrity and the media, but naming a baby after a place or foodstuff is actually nothing new

We all know unusual baby names are a bit of a Marmite thing – you either love them or hate them – but is calling your daughter “Nutella” a step too far?

That’s exactly what happened in France recently where a court stepped in to stop a couple naming their baby daughter after the popular sandwich spread.

Stories like this seem to be cropping up more and more frequently. There was another case in France where a couple were banned from using the name Fraise (Strawberry). And names like Pepsi, Geordie, Apple, London, and even Reem, from the reality TV show The Only Way is Essex, are becoming more popular in the UK.

It’s easy to sneer at such ‘ridiculous’ names, but naming a baby after something descriptive like a place or foodstuff is actually nothing new as Florence, Rosemary or Basil might point out.

This is because name trends are cyclical, according to Sarah Redshaw, managing editor of pregnancy and parenting website, BabyCentre UK:

“At the moment we’re seeing a big increase in names like Alfred, Archie and Florence,” she says. “Names that were really popular a hundred years ago are now coming back into fashion. It could be the Downton Abbey effect but it’s also people looking a bit further back at names their grandparents had. In 20 years’ time our parents’ names will come back into fashion.”

One of the things that feeds the fashion cycle of names is celebrity and the media, according to Redshaw, with hit TV shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad leading to sudden surges of popularity for names like Jessie and Skyler (from Breaking Bad) or the girl’s name, Arya which leapt straight from Game of Thrones into the UK’s top 100 last year.

Alongside this there is a growing trend for more adventurous, descriptive names, according to Redshaw. “A hundred years ago there was a much smaller pool of names,” she says. “Now parents will take everyday objects like an apple. Also parents will mix names like Rose-Lee, bringing two names together to create something more unique. There’s also the example of celebrities who are becoming more and more creative with names like Blue or Princess, which influences people.”

But even this fashion for more descriptive names is nothing new, in fact it’s probably the oldest trend of all. The first human names were probably descriptive nouns and adjectives like “hound”, “fire” or “fair”, according to Kristine Elliott of the heraldry group, the Society for Creative Anachronism. Over time, as language changed, the original meanings of the most popular names would have been forgotten – the situation with most names today.

With the advent of Christianity Biblical names entered European languages, starting a trend which has lasted to this day with names like Mary, Matthew, John and James. Saints were the celebrities of their day and just like Adele or Miley today, people named their children after them. In France it was traditional to name children after the saint on whose day they were born. It wasn’t until 1993 that the law was changed to allow French parents a free rein in choosing names for their babies – unless they were based on popular sandwich spreads of course.

Today religious names still top the popularity charts with Mohammed and its variant spellings the most popular boys’ name in the UK and the world – around 150 million males across the globe are named after the prophet of Islam. The second most popular boys’ name for babies in the UK is Oliver, according to BabyCentre, and for girls it’s Sophia, a trend which is mirrored all over the globe: in the US it’s Jackson and Sophia; in Australia, Oliver and Ava; in France, Lucas and Emma; in Brazil Miguel and Sophia; In Russia, Artem and Sophia; and in India, Aarav and Aadhya – okay, maybe not all over.

The most popular names continue to be traditional ones but more out-there appellations are definitely rising, according to Redshaw. The new urge towards creativity has given us a host of names which can feel surprising and fresh – Autumn for a girl or Hunter for a boy are two of Redshaw’s favourites – but they have also led to an upsurge of the weird, laughable and downright embarrassing, prompting some to call the worst examples a form of child abuse.

In New Zealand a court had to step in to change a nine-year-old girl’s name from Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. Other names that have been blocked include Fish and Chips, Cinderella Beauty Blossom, Sex Fruit and one child named after the entire All Blacks rugby team. More worryingly perhaps are the names that have been allowed, which include Benson and Hedges, Midnight Chardonnay and Number 16 Bus Shelter – a less glamorous version, perhaps, of the ‘Brooklyn’ trend of naming a baby after the place it was conceived?

And the dangers posed by bad names don’t end there. Even if you escape a purposefully-given weird name, you might be stuck with an accidental one, as Stan Still, Robin Graves, Jordy Shaw, Hazel Nutt, Tim Burr, Carrie Oakey and Jo King would probably all attest.

But it may be too soon to worry that our great grandchildren will all be named after light snacks and TV box set characters. Although name trends are cyclical in nature, according to Redshaw, the most popular – and safest – names tend to stay constant.

“I think you will see more unusual names but I don’t think they’ll ever come permanently into the top one hundred,” she says. “You will get the odd handful of names that are more unusual and more cultural from TV references, but there will never be enough people naming their child Nutella for it to make it into the top one hundred.”

Hallelujah. And no, that’s not a suggestion for a baby name.

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