Miles Kington: When Harry met Osama Goran Eminem

'No leader with a long name ever lasts. The press can't handle them. I fear for Iain Duncan Smith'
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The Independent Online

If you look at the births columns in newspapers, you will get the clear impression that the most popular names in Britain and the world are simple ones like John, James, Sally and Mary. You get a very different picture if you look at the headlines, because the people who live in the headlines are mostly not called James or Sally – they tend to be called Osama, Yasser, Madonna and Serena, and most of us go through life without ever meeting anyone called Osama, Yasser, Serena or Madonna.

Quite why people in the news tend to have exotic names is something that scientists have not yet explained, probably because they have much better things to do, but I have made a start over the last few years by tabulating the 10 top boy's names and the 10 top girl's names each year, based on their appearances in news stories, so that when science comes to look at this neglected subject, the evidence will be here.

The findings have been fascinating. Whereas the names in the births columns move with agonising slowness (Wayne up two places! Kylie down one point!), the names in the headlines sometimes change with seismic speed, storming up the Top 10 one year, quite out of the reckoning the next year. One year the name Arpad was in the Top 10, following some scandal about GM foods, but he has never been heard of since, and nobody talks much about GM foods either, which is perhaps more worrying. Diana was the top girl's name for year after year, but then suddenly vanished from the frame. Other names that have faded dramatically over the past few years include Melinda, Vanessa, P-Y, OJ, Jarvis and Tiggy. Oh, and Ffion.

The headlines this year have been dominated by unrest in the Middle East and the war in Afghanistan, so it is not surprising that one or two Arabic names feature in the Top 10 for the first time. One name that has disappeared almost completely is Al, which was the first name of the defeated presidential candidate in the last elections. I don't think the media much cared which man won the election as long as he had a short name, easy to get into headlines, and there was nothing to choose between Bush and Gore, though Al of course was even better than George (which actually got shortened to Dubya).

World leaders with long names never last, because the press can't handle them. That's why Benjamin Netanyahu had to go. The only way a world leader with a long name can stay in power is by getting a nickname or abbreviation in double quick time. That is why Eisenhower became "Ike", and that is why I fear for Iain Duncan Smith's chances, at least if he doesn't find a way of easing the headline-writer's task by devising an easier form of address.

But without further ado, let us have a roll of drums, a fanfare and the top 10 headline boy's names for AD 2001! (Previous year's positions in brackets).

1. Harry................................. (6)

2. Osama............................... (2)

3. Charles............................. (3)

4. Tom.................................... (-)

5. Yasser................................ (9)

6. Wills................................... (1)

7. Sven Goran...................... (-)

8. Hagrid............................... (-)

9. Frodo................................. (-)

10. Eminem.......................... (-)

All fairly straightforward there, I think. Names which have been knocked out of last year's list include Damilola, Slobodan, Elian and Ehud. Other names which were knocking around the top 50 include such odd newcomers as Moby, Rudolph and Ariel. There were brief appearances in the top 100 by the names Srichand and Gopichand. Can anyone remember who owned them? No? Give up? The Hinduja brothers, that's who... And of all the Gothic names which came in with the Tolkien revival, the most intriguing did not belong to one of the characters at all, but to one of the actors: Viggo.

One curious development this year was the increasingly abbreviated form of novelists' names – bobbing around in the top 40 we found Nick (Hornby), Terry (Pratchett ) and Tony (Parsons). Future literary critics may wonder why they refused to be known as Nicholas Hornby, Terence Pratchett and Anthony Parsons. We can also wonder whether writers of the past might have fared even better if they had been called Tony Trollope and Terry Rattigan.

So much for the boys. Tomorrow – can last year's top three girl's names (Madonna, JK and Camilla) hold on to their places? Don't bank on it!

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