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Society, Politics & Law

Is your given name likely to become extinct?

Updated Tuesday, 15th July 2014

Dick Skellington revisits the curious and changing world of names and shows just why they are important for our life chances.

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A cartoon of two Scottish men sitting at a table with Muhammad Ali in the background. One man asks 'Say that again Hamish... Mac Muhammad who??'. Creative commons image Icon Gary Edwards under Creative-Commons license

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my fascination with names so it will come as no surprise when I saw the latest research by which explored endangered given names of over a century ago, from 1905.

I was curious too to find out if my middle name, Stanley, so redolent to me of the era of Workers' Playtime and the fifties, was on the outdated list. I found out it wasn't, though I half expected it to be. But if there are any Cecils out there, Bertha's or Willies, then be prepared for a surprise.

According to the research, Willie, Cecil and Rowland for boys, and Gertrude, Bertha and Blodwen for girls, are now 'officially' extinct. Back in Edwardian Britain these given names proliferated, but now they have virtually disappeared, while other given names are becoming increasingly endangered. Horace, Leslie, Clifford, and Norman; Ethel, Hilda, Marion, and Phyllis, have all fallen by 99 per cent since 1905.

Ancestry's exploration of online birth records also revealed that Cyril, Arnold and Bernard for boys, and Mildred, Dorothy and Gwendoline for girls, could be further categorised in an 'at risk' category. A spokeswoman explained: 'No [given] name can truly become extinct, as it can easily be resurrected, but it's fascinating to look at the list from 1905 and see which survived and which have faded'.

Many popular names from the early 20th century have evolved to their shorter form, replacing their previous name. Freddie has replaced Frederick, Archie has overtaken Archibald and Charlie has become more popular than Charles. The same applies to girls' names, with Lexi replacing Alexandra, Sophie surpassing Sophia and Ellie overtaking Eleanor. The analysis showed that more girls' names were at risk of disappearing than boys.

Other research suggests that t2014 could bring about a resurgence in the kind of imperilled given names so identified by Ancestry. Two predominant baby name trends can be discerned – family names and vintage revivals. So welcome back, Edna and Ethel, Gertrude and Percy, Gracie and Agnes. And if Edna feels too clunky for nursery school, you can always call her Edie. It seems the world of baby naming is in a state of flux!

And of course there is the Royal effect, when any birth or the sheer popularity of a prince brings about a contagion of Georges and Williams. The top ten boys names in 2013 were, in ranking order, William, George, Charles, Henry, Frederick, Edward, Harry. Alexander, Jack, and Samuel. We must not forget of course the impact migration has had on a name's popularity. For example, in 2013, it was reported that Muhammad was the most popular name in Glasgow.

Names do signify, that is certain. If we turn to surnames, research indicates that people with more noble surnames (and in some cases given names), such as King or Prince, have a greater chance of growing up to be managers (at least in Germany), while those with more humble monikers, such as Cook and Farmer, have a lower than average chance of remaining in menial occupations, according to research by Cambridge University. Prestigious names seem to count. We recently had a former Governor of the Bank of England called Lord King, while Lord Judge was a former Lord Chief Justice.

A report in the journal Psychological Science explained: 'This phenomenon occurs despite the fact that noble surnames indicated that the person actually held a noble title', and this could 'spill over to its bearer, influencing the consequential life outcomes, such as the person's career advancement'.

But take a tip from me. If your surname is Butter, don't, as parents of one of my old school pals did, call your offspring, Roland.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
Want to know more about studying social sciences with The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.





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