Thursday, May 24, 2007

Changes in First Names in English, 1200 - 2000

In 1300, the most common names in English for boys were John, William, Robert, Richard, and Thomas. In 1940, the most common names were James, Robert, John, William, and Richard. Thomas had slipped to 8th. That's not a lot of change in 640 years. The streak wasn't completely uninterrupted. Charles, Henry, George, and few others would slip into the top 5 for a century or so, but the top 5 never fell very far.

The most common names for girls in 1300 were Mary, Ann, Elizabeth, Jane, and Margaret. In they 1880's they were Mary, Anna, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Emma. A few names like Alice or Sarah would pop in, but that list was quite stable as well.

In around 1800 in England, about a quarter of the boys were named John, and more than a fifth of the girls were named Mary. When one considers that having multiple progeny was more the norm then, it would seem that just about every family had a John and a Mary.

Interestingly, the names had changed somewhat in the 13th Century. Before the Conquest, things like Radulf and Drogo were more common, along with the Johns and Roberts. But after the Normans took over, the Saxon names fell out of favor socially and French names moved up.

In America, these male and female names continued strongly in Virginia. New England and the Mid-Atlantic states began using other names, usually Biblical, but the names above continued strong. Not until about 1800 do we start to see new female names pop onto the lists, and the male names do not start changing until a century later.

Female names have turned over more rapidly since then, as we discussed in this post from a year ago. An excerpt:
Names given to boys have been more stable over time. Michael became the most popular name for boys over fifty years ago, and has been #1 most years since. David supplanted it for a few years in the 1960's and Jacob has pushed it into 2nd in the 21st C, but that's a very long run. In that time, Mary, Lisa, and Jennifer have each enjoyed runs of about 10-15 years atop the list. None of these have even been in the top 10 since 1992, when Jessica rose to the top, quickly replaced by Emily.

Wikipedia covers the most common names for 1880 - present, which is fun thing to browse through.

It is also interesting to ponder Pathological Names, which I also wrote about months ago. John Derbyshire over at National Review Online has also weighed in on the subject.

This all comes up because the new grandchild will be either Benjamin or Emily, so I am thinking about onomastics again.


Denny, Alaska said...

Interesting post, AVI. Among my 12-yr-old daughter's (Kathleen) circle of friends and school mates, I see lots of Nicks and Samanthas, Jacobs and Chris'; I've also noticed an interesting mix of kids (both m/f) named Denali, Deska and Rohn. These are Alaska mountains, towns, rivers, etc. I once thought this was unique, sorta cute and oh-so-Alaska, but I've come to believe in recent years: what the hell were those parents thinking? I mean, really: naming your kid after an interior Alaska checkpoint on the Iditarod? I still believe parents should have to apply for, and receive, a "naming license."
Denny Gill
Chugiak, Alaska

Anonymous said...

Naming license? Why stop there? How about a license to procreate? You need a license to drive, a passport to travel, a license to marry, but anybody can make and name a baby.

Kate said...

Anonymous said...

My friends named there baby Alyeska after a resort in Alaska where they got married and i think the name is really cute.