From Ardal to OJ: the names in the frame

Every year, people who have been analysing the births columns write to The Independent to tell us that Sophie has edged ahead of Tamsin again or that James and John are still popular. Regular readers of this column will know that I have a more sophisticated approach: I take names only from the newspaper headlines, thus making sure that I find all the most influential names of the year.

In 1995, for instance, I found that the most common first name for boys according to the headline test was one not even mentioned in the births columns. It was, of course, "OJ".

Another popular name in 1995 was Nick, being borne by such celebrities as Nick Faldo, Nick Leeson, Nick Ross, Anne'n'Nick etc. Most of these have vanished from public fame (for a long time, in Mr Leeson's case) with the curious result that this year the name Nicholas has overtaken Nick. Not, in all cases, with happy results. The name Nicholas seems to be favoured by politicians who have a habit of slipping on banana skins. Sir Nicholas Lyell, for instance, who was adjudged by the Scott Report to have got things so badly wrong that a less sensitive man might have thought of resigning. Nicholas Soames, for another example, who told the House that he had got it all wrong about Gulf War Syndrome and was sorry for having misled the House, and Sir Nicholas Scott, who was adjudged by his constituency party to have been lying. Lying on a pavement because of painkillers, apparently, but still lying. Our advice is to take anything told you by a politician called Nicholas with a pinch of salt. And Michael, too, if we think of Howard and Portillo.

And William, too, if we think of William Waldegrave who was adjudged by the Scott Report to have told untruths to Parliament but who told us he could not see why he should resign. Maybe this was not true either.

Other names which did better than usual in 1996 - among the male contenders - were Kevin and Ian, who were for Britain what OJ was for the US, and Damon, owing to the success of Damon Hill, who won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year title, despite having kept any signs of a personality invisible from the public. The same is true of John Major, who was awarded a personality by listeners of Today, but not by anyone else. Perhaps it was a joke by multiple telephoners from the Tory party.

There were some new names among the male candidates. Nice to see Slobodan and Radovan on the up, as well as Gareth, the only big new name to emerge from Euro 96. Arwel was a new one on me, being borne by one of the emerging Welsh rugby stars, and so was Ardal, which seems to be a name favoured by Irish comedians along with Dermot and Dylan. I am convinced that Neil would have been up there if only Neil Hamilton had had the courage to take on The Guardian in court, or at least slipped them some money to stop them asking questions, but it was not to be ...

So, without further ado, to the top 10 male names of 1996. Drum roll and fanfare, please! (Last year's positions are in brackets, incidentally.)

l. Mister ............................. (-)

2. Binyamin ...................... (-)

3. Wallace ......................... (-)

4. Gromit .......................... (-)

5. Colin ............................. (-)

6. Moham(m)ed ............... (-)

7. Nicholas ....................... (9)

8. Saddam ......................... (-)

9. Bhumibol ..................... (7)

10. Paul ............................. (-)

Mister, of course, is the universal first name of all Jane Austen heroes - Mr Darcy, Mr Willoughby, etc - and as this has been Austen year again, it was an inevitable winner. Binyamin is the exotic first name of Israel's leader, though of course it is not as exotic as his second name, pronounced Net-and-yahoo. Wallace and Gromit need no explanation, though I may say en passant how nice it is to see a dog's name up there. Colin is the name of the man who should have been American president. Every time Clinton or Dole was mentioned (and, incidentally, isn't it odd that a man named after unemployment pay should run for the presidency?), someone else wrote regretfully about Colin Powell being so much better. Moham(m)ed is the name shared by the man who owns Harrods and Punch and also by Mohammed al-Masari, the now forgotten Saudi troublemaker, and indeed by the great Prophet. Bhumibol is the name of the king of Thailand who has not only been on the throne for 40 years but also likes jazz, which is beyond any of our royal family. And Paul creeps in finally because there are so many people called Paul - Gambaccini, Merton, Gascoigne, Boateng, etc - and nobody called Gazza any more.

Girls' names tomorrow!