Dodi, Daniel Arap, Greg 'n' Tim, Elton: a boys' own guide to the news in '97

Every year for the past 10 years I have brought you a list of the top 10 boys' and girls' first names of the preceding year. This list is not based, like everyone else's list, on names given at birth, at christenings and so on, but on newspaper headlines, because news names are very different from ordinary names. It is one of the strange things noticed by students of names that the commonest ordinary names such as John and James, Mary and Susan, very rarely crop up in the news. Similarly, names that commonly occur in the news, such as Sting and Madonna, Prince and the artist formerly known as Dana, are very rarely, probably never, given to children.

This year has been no exception. Indeed, although John Major was indubitably in the news a lot, and also indubitably our Prime Minister until May, the name John never hit the headlines. If a paper had said: "John flies out", nobody would have known who it was. John Major? John Prescott? Most people would have thought that, if anyone, it was Elton John who was flying out. We have often pointed out in this space that if a politician has a handily short surname, the press will always prefer it to their first name, unless the first name is uncommon. That is why we learn to talk about Blair, not Tony, Hague, not William, Clinton, not Bill, and that is why none of those names appears in our Top 10 this year.

(Indeed, it is hard to think of any politicians who have become famous under their first name. Benjamin Netanyahu is the only famous Benjamin alive today, but he is never referred to as Benjamin, only the faintly ridiculous name Netanyahu. Perhaps Ike was the last politician not to be known by his surname, apart from Maggie.)

It is also odd how some names are household names one year, and gone the next. (And in the case of Elton, back again the year after that.) Looking at lists from past years I find such names as Sting and Rod, Seb and Red Ken, Virginia and Edwina. Where are they now? Where indeed?

But enough of this speculation and down to hard facts. Here is the list of the Top 10 Boys' Names for 1997, based entirely on newspaper and media analysis. Previous year's positions are in brackets.

1. Dodi........................ (-)

2. Charles.................... (5)

3. Greg 'n' Tim........... (-)

4. Elton ...................... (-)

5. Daniel Arap........... (-)

6. The Two Johns....... (-)

7. Piers........................ (9)

8. Mohammed............ (10)

9. Ken......................... (6)

10. Gianni................... (-)

One or two notes are in order, I think. First, this is the first time for some time that we have not had a set of initials in the top 10 news names. OJ was very popular for a while, and so was the South African PW, but this seems to be going out of fashion. Incidentally, you would think that the name Nelson would catch on from South Africa, but Nelson Mandela is another example of the way in which politicians most often become known by their surnames.

One of the most surprising aspects of the whole business was that the overall winner was a name which had never featured before in any position, namely Dodi, though I don't think it will be featuring again next year. Piers owed its popularity to its being sported by both a tabloid editor and a tabloid Member of Parliament. Indeed, political scandal can often catapult a name to popularity: Neil and Jonathan were bobbing round in the top 20, and I am sure that Jack will do well next year.

One of the names that did really well in 1996 was Michael, but almost all the bearers of the name seemed to fade away in 1997. (Flatley, Portillo and Heseltine gave the impression of vanishing, and Jackson sort of did the same, while Michael Hutchence did the same, though even more so.)

Ralph and Ranulph did quite well, though they tended to get confused, as they have both been linked to the surname Fiennes. Chris very nearly broke into the Top 10, as it was a name sported by two men in the news last year, Evans and Patten, both of them, like kings across the water, poised perhaps to seize power.

Finally, one can note the receding of the fashion for laddish nicknames. No more chaps called Tel and Del, and not many called Hezza or Bazza or indeed Gazza. This fashion started to fade just in time, for otherwise Tony Blair might have become known as Tozza, which would have been hard to bear, especially for him.

Tomorrow, the top girls' names of 1997, the year in which the Spice Girls arrived, Diana departed and the Teletubbies did whatever it is that Teletubbies do.