British Baby Names vs. American Baby Names
What makes for a British baby name? A simple answer might come from the official list of the most popular baby names in England and Wales, which was released last week. Those stats show Olivia, Sophie and Emily topping the charts for girls, Oliver, Jack and Harry for boys. None of those name should sound too surprising to an American observer. All but Harry rank among the U.S. top 100 names, and Harry has the British double-whammy of a prince and a boy wizard in its corner. So far, expectations confirmed.
But then there's the #4 boy's name: Alfie. That name is virtually unknown in the U.S., given to only 6 American boys last year. (Other boys' names tied at 6 include Jagjot, Ifeanyichukwu, and Awesome.)
Is Alfie a blip on the radar, or a sign of a major style divide? What kinds of names define British vs. American baby name style?
I decided to look for the differences statistically, in the same way that I track the differences in U.S. naming from one year to the next. I normalized the 2010 name frequency data for England and Wales (E&W) and the United States (US) to occurrences per million babies born, to allow direct comparisons. Then I applied my standard Baby Name Wizard "Hotness formula," a calculation that balances percent change with the absolute number of babies affected. The result is a ranking of the "most British" and "most American" names. And yes, there are consistent differences in naming style.
To American ears, E&W names are overwhelmingly cute. My guess is that's not what the typical American expects. My chapter on "English" names in the Baby Name Wizard book described a style based on Americans' literary imagination, not geographic reality. Deep down, Americans kind of wish English people would be named Nigel and Victoria and live in a Masterpiece Theatre production. But take a look at the names that define real E&W name style today:
Most British Baby Names, 2010
Meet the kids, Ellie-May and Ollie! Not so much Masterpiece Theatre as Beverly Hillbillies, eh? But those represent hot name styles in England today. Not only do two spellings of Ollie make the top 10 most-British list, but if I expanded the list the next three girls' names in line would be Lily-Rose, Lilly-May and Lily-May.
The hyphenated girls' names are, admittedly, a bit of a statistical cheat. The U.S. doesn't allow punctuation in name stats. But the run-together versions like Elliemae are overwhelmingly British, as are the individual names Ellie and Lily. And anecdotally, in my nine years in the baby name business no American parent has ever approached me with a dilemma like "Ellie-Mae vs. Lily-Mae."
On the boy's side, cute diminutives have never been less popular in the U.S. This used to be a land of nicknames, overrun with Billys, Jimmies and Tommies. Today that's William, James and Thomas, thank you very much. Oh, you'll meet a fair number of young American Williams called Will or Liam, but little Billy has become scarce as both nickname and given name. In England & Wales, though, Billy is the #101 boy's name, a little behind Bobby and just ahead of Frankie. Lifelong boyishness is now the English way.
Looking beyond the diminutives, you'll notice the list features Welsh names like Osian, Ffion and Bethan. This is, after all, a list based England and Wales. (The individual country lists only run 100 names deep, insufficient for this analysis.) Freya is a Norse goddess name that's hot throughout Scandinavia as well as the U.K. Darcey is a feminized form of the surname Darcy (as seen in Pride and Prejudice). The great English ballerina Darcey Bussell is one prominent bearer.
That leaves just Imogen, Barnaby and the Scottish import Finlay to hold up the image of formal, quirkily classic English names. As for Nigel and Victoria, prepare to be disillusioned: both are twice as common in the U.S. today as in England.
To be continued, with the Most American Names next time...On to part 2, Most American!