End of an era for Edna, Norman and Irene

A piece of British history is rapidly dying out as the nation's most traditional names are replaced by a new generation of Mohammads, Jacks, Jessicas and Olivias

Amol Rajan
Wednesday 13 August 2008 00:00

Some evoke the spirit of the Blitz and Dad's Army. Others recall the confidence of Queen Victoria's Britain and the age of colonial conquest.

But the likes of Norman, Walter, Edna and Ethel are bywords for a bygone age. According to new research, traditional British names are disappearing at a faster rate than at any time in history.

Britain's rapidly-changing demographic and a growing deference to cultish fads is producing a wider range of names across the country but also threatening to render previously popular monikers extinct.

And while many traditional names are fading into obscurity, other recent additions are flourishing. Mohammad was the 17th most popular boy's name last year, while Muhammad was the 38th most popular. More boys born in Britain last year were named after the Prophet than were given any other name.

Dr Geoff Ellis, a statistician formerly of Sheffield Hallam University, examined the most popular baby names in 1907 that have failed to make the list of 100 most popular baby names in each of the past five years. He then plotted the relative decline of each name over the past century.

The results were striking. The popularity of the boys' names Norman, Walter, Percy, and Harold have all declined by over 99 per cent in the past century. For girls, the same is true of Gertrude, Edna, and Ethel.

Other male names to decline sharply include Ernest, Herbert, Clifford, Frank, Arnold, and Leonard, while Irene, Ada, Norah, Olive, Agnes, Elsie and Mabel have all declined by more than 95 per cent in the same period.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Richard, the most popular boys' name in Britain two centuries ago, is 19th on the overall list compiled by Dr Ellis, having fallen in popularity by 66 per cent since 1907.

Thirteen per cent of all children born in Britain today are given one of the five most popular boys' or girls' names, compared with 8 per cent a century ago. The five most popular boys' names last year were Jack, Thomas, Oliver, Joshua, and Harry, while the five most popular girls' names were Grace, Ruby, Olivia, Emily, and Jessica.

"Modern parents are increasingly being influenced by fashions and celebrity," commented Sarah Stone, the editor of gurgle.com, the networking website that commissioned the research.

Dr Ellis believes the decline of traditional names can be largely attributed to immigration and the willingness of parents to be more bold and experimental when naming their children.

"Among the interesting discoveries I made was that two centuries ago the spread of names was very small. Perhaps 60 per cent of newborns had one of the top five most popular names for a boy or girl," Dr Ellis said. "A hundred years ago, however, there was almost as wide a distribution of names as there is today, since lots of new names entered our lexicon during the Victorian era.

"Today there are even more new additions – largely because Britain has been a welcome home to immigrants – so there are more names from ethnic minorities than ever before.

"But it's also the case that parents looking for inspiration are thinking less about family and heritage, and turning to the pages of OK! and Hello! Those who use names like Norman, Walter, Edna or Ethel tend to employ them as middle names, almost as if they want to hide them. They're trying to keep traditions alive, but seem embarrassed about it."

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