Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Tag: children

Forget Harry and Amelia – we are naming our kids with more variation than ever

I have a big interest in this one: I am about to be a father for the 4th time. Finding a name is tough when you’ve used up a whole bunch already, and you have to avoid clashes with friends and family with similarly-aged children.

So the Office of National Statistics baby names for 2012 – released on Monday – is a data treasure trove. What’s up, what’s down, what to avoid.

But in all the hoopla over the top names (Harry and Amelia), there is an important trend playing out. In the UK, we are getting far more diverse in how we name our kids.

There are several ways to measure this, using the ONS data that goes back to 1996.

One is to look at the number of babies that are given the top name. From a peak of nearly 11,000 for boys in 1996 (the first year of available data) and 9,600 for girls in 1998, the top name has dropped to around 7,000 for boys, and until 2012, around 5,000 for girls. Ameila, the top name in 2012, has bucked the trend, with around 7,000.

But does that mean that we are simply spreading names out further among the favourites? It seems not. The ONS also lists all names that are given to three or more children in each year. The pool of names that aren’t so weird or odd as to be completely unique is rising, from under 4,000 for boys in 1996 to over 6,000 now; and under 5,000 for girls to nearly 8,000 in the same period.

(The Independent reported that there were 28,000 different boys’ names and over 36,000 different girls’ names in 2012 – which means there are a HUGE mass of names that aren’t listed by ONS which have just one or two occurences. Roughly 28,000 names have one or two occurences – out of 350,000 births, that’s a lot. But I’ve worked from the ONS dataset which gives three or more instances of each name.)

That could be partially explained by simply more overall births – and after a drop to 2002, the birth rate has indeed picked up.

But we can easily factor that in: the average frequency of names for both boys and girls (ie the total births divided by the number of unique names used 3 or more times) is going down consistently over the period.

Equally, we can look at the number of times the top name is used as a percentage of the total births for boys and girls – and this is also heading down, with over 3 per cent of boys being given the top name in 1996, to under 2 per cent now. The girls top name has fluctuated more, but the trend is similar.

The divergence between the results for girls and boys shows that we have always been more creative with girls names – but the diversification trend is happening for both genders.

Why is this happening?

One answer may be immigration. As the UK gets more people from other countries, so it will get a greater diversity of names. This explains the higher number of unique names.

But that doesn’t explain the rapid decline in the number of times the top name is used. That implies we are getting more creative.

And in fact, if we look at the number of times the 20th name is given, and the 100th, there is an interesting pattern. For both girls and boys, the 20th name is also declining in popularity, but not as dramatically as for the top name. But the 100th name is generally getting more popular over time. That implies we are searching for more interesting names – the 100th most popular name is not exactly mainstream.

How far can this go? For boys, a lot further, clearly, as boys names lag behind girls in terms of diversity. Overall, there may be no end to it. You can imagine almost limitless variations on some names, as well as ever more exotic places and made-up names. Then there are hypenated versions: there were 19 Lilly-somethings alone last year. And there are parents perhaps trying to get their kids noticed by alphabetical means – there are 69 girls names in the 2012 data that start with two As, compared to 17 in 1996. And there were 125 girls names starting with Z in 2012 – compared to 74 in 1996.

Parents want their kids to stand out, it seems.

Data for all charts from ONS

Good, strange and seasonal – the name game

The recent birth of my third child (a girl, all good, thanks for asking) meant another stab at picking a “good” name.

By good, I mean a name that ticks a few of these random boxes: not too popular; not too weird; sounds nice; no major associations; works with the other names we picked; doesn’t create a stupid acronym. That sort of thing.

And being something of a data nerd, I of course turned to the top list of baby names provided by the ONS. I’ve mentioned before the curiosity of names, and the readable analysis in freakenomics is fascinating.

However, a few things in the top girl names [xls file] (2009, the most recent list) struck me.

A quick test: our children are called Matilda, Francesca, and Annie. In 2009, the most recent data, which was the most popular? I would have thought Annie, but it was actually not even in the top 150, coming in at 153. Francesca was 98, Matilda at 46.

Weirdly, the names Lexi (47) and Lexie (69) – which count as separate names – when added together get into the top 30 with over 2,000 registrations. But the most notable thing about Lexi(e) is that it has risen from nowhere – in 1999 both variations barely got into the top 2,000 names.

But buried lower in the data was the confirmation that naming children can be terribly contrived. For nine months of the year, the most popular names are as you might expect. But then in June and July, Summer appears in the top 10. Overall in 2009, it ranked 24th with 2,054 girls given that name. But June and July saw 608 of those, nearly 30 per cent of the total. I’d guess it’s close to the top 10 for August too.

In December, it’s even worse. Holly, a name that over the year ranks 19th, is top in Christmas month, with nearly 23 per cent of its registrations, (519 of 2,263). It doesn’t get in the top 10 for any other month. Basically, if you meet someone called Holly, you have a 1 in 4 or so chance she was born in December.

Without wanting to sound too clever, I think we’ve picked good names. It’s a tricky dilemma, and you want to be creative without ending up like Daisy Waugh – Panda, Zeberdee and Bashe might be “different”, but it’s a fine line.

Finally, scrolling down to the very bottom of the list to the names given to only three girls nationally (names given only twice or less are redacted) throws up the truly awful. Porsche? Lilo? Topsy? There must be some corkers with only one entry.

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