British Baby Names vs. American Baby Names

Aug 6th 2011

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

1 Alfie Maisie
2 Olly Poppy
3 Archie Ellie-May
4 Harry Imogen
5 Kenzie Lily-Mae
6 Finlay Ffion
7 Barnaby Darcey
8 Ollie Freya
9 Freddie Bethan
10 Osian Ellie-Mae

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!




By Mom Blog (not verified)
August 10, 2011 3:56 PM

Funny comparison. Insightful to see just how different our naming conventions are.

By IrishMum (not verified)
August 12, 2011 1:56 PM

Interesting question. yes they do sound British as I'd be surprised to discover names like Cathal, Gethin or Hamish used outside of the UK. So they do sort of nail colours to the mast a bit, but yes I think we can all tell instantly if a name is Welsh, Scottish or Irish. Some names like Eoin / Owen are the same name but are the Irish/Welsh versions (respectively) and I'm assuming that Osian is a version of Oisín.

By woowa (not verified)
August 12, 2011 4:04 PM

Before I'd heard of Mr Darcy in P&P, i knew d'Arcy as a family name (my dad and grandpa both have it as middle names, and my grandpa was known as d'Arcy for his whole life. It is French, and means "from Arcy". So maybe Darcey is the feminised version of d'Arcy, not Darcy?

By emz (not verified)
August 14, 2011 3:43 PM

I teach in a very middle class area of London, but without exception all the Alfies I've taught have been working class. There is definitely a massive class divide respresented here.

Can I ask Laura why she chose to use the E&W stats and not the Scottish ones? They're readily available and, IMO, more accessible than the E&W ones. Northern Ireland is not a part of Great Britain (though it is a part of the UK) so I can understand leaving them out, but why Scotland? Admittedly we have a devolved parliament but I don't think that's a good reason.

It drives me mad when Americans and others use 'British' as shorthand for 'English'.

By ElisabethMorgan (not verified)
August 16, 2011 4:35 AM

To me 'Alfie' must always be prefaced by, "What's it all about..." It's the first thing I think of when I hear it and quite difficult to shake.

I have maybe an idiosyncratic take on nicknames as first names. I feel that in a way the child is being cheated by "only" having the nickname when the parents could just as easily given the their child the formal name on paper and yet happily referred to the child by nickname all of his/her life. It's a way of giving a child options.

By ElisabethMorgan (not verified)
August 16, 2011 4:36 AM

I thought 'Darcie' was the feminized version of Darcy?

By rishika (not verified)
August 17, 2011 1:59 AM

I think the right side is definitely British, at least for the boys, I generally like American names the most, even though I'm not American or British...
British names are old.

By Rufus Evison (not verified)
August 17, 2011 10:59 AM

At least the Boys names are ones I have heard of but the Girl's names baffle me. I live in England and keep track of kids names around London at least and have yet to even hear of anyone called anything-May it is just not an English name. are you sure the hyphen has not caused a glitch in your database query? The top 100 baby names cover significantly more than half of the names given to babies born in 2010 and yet none of the names mentioned in the top 100 end in May. I would suggest that this suggests it is not a very English name.

I include the National Statistics page for reference. This gives a link to the top 100 names and their frequency.

By Emz (not verified)
August 21, 2011 11:22 PM

Rufus, I suggest you look at the Sun newspaper's Sunbeams competition for a glut of something-Mays. It depends which part of London you're in - some parts are trendier than others - but they're definitely out there, and in large numbers.

By LucieH (not verified)
August 29, 2011 4:56 AM

A few notes from a British reader:
1. The notion that the popularity of cutesy nickname-names has anything to do with our welfare system rubs me up the wrong way. I was born 25 years ago, when our welfare system was arguably stronger, and not one of the boys I grew up with had a name like that. They were without exception named things like Christopher, James, Matthew, David, Simon, Daniel and Thomas (sure, they mostly went by nicknames like Chris, Dave, Matt, Dan and Tom, but these are hardly the Alfie school of nicknames). Likewise, the most popular names for girls were all sensible names like Sarah, Laura, Catherine, Rebecca and Emily. No doubt there will be 25 year olds out there with frillier, sillier names, but I cannot think of a single person at any school I attended in my very ordinary, middle-of-the-road town that had the kind of name that would provoke the same kind of comment as Effy-May or Alfie-Lee.
My parents were born circa 55 years ago, in the heyday of “cradle to grave”. The top names then were as follows: Boys – David, John, Stephen, Michael, Peter, Robert, Paul, Alan, Christopher, Richard. Girls – Susan, Linda, Christine, Margaret, Janet, Patricia, Carol, Elizabeth, Mary, Anne. Hyphenated nickname-names, and novel names in general, were until recently thought of as typically American (and I dare say still are by many – perhaps that exoticism is part of their appeal).
2. Following on from point 1, it becomes clear that the cutesy names of today are a reaction to the last couple of generations of naming conformity. That’s the way trends work. When you have grown up in a class with five Davids and five Sarahs, the impulse is to give your child a name you perceive as more unusual. I also think the greater individualism of Western culture plays into this – conformity is no longer valued as much as the idea of choosing something individual that showcases your taste and personality. Since, ironically, most people end up rebelling in a conformist way, we get a million different combinations of the same name components, based largely around old-fashioned nicknames and suffixes like May or Lee. Lily/Tilly/Millie is our Jayden/Hayden/Brayden. I think the last great wave of baby name creativity began in late-Victorian times.

By LucieH (not verified)
August 29, 2011 4:59 AM

3. People have mentioned class. First I just want to debunk the idea that we have a more rigid “class system” than the US. Studies show that social mobility is actually lower in America than in the UK. As a British person, I would be stumped if you asked me to say which class I am, or which class any given acquaintance is in. I mean obviously the extremes are easy enough to classify, as in any country, but the vast majority I would really struggle to place. I see more of a fuzzy continuum peppered with contradictions, rather than the idea of a few distinct classes. As in the US, some people are clearly richer, more powerful, better-connected and/or better educated than others – and not always all four at once. I am not saying things are perfect but I do get riled by the assumption that Britain is uniquely class-ridden. Now London is more polarised than average, but I think that is true of big cities around the world.
4. Alfie, Archie and co, have actually trickled down from the higher social classes (as it were). The average twenty-something Alfie will be from quite a different background than the average baby Alfie. And these names do crop up from time to time in the Telegraph, although certainly not as often. It’s definitely true that the Telegraph is far more likely to feature Frederick, while the country as a whole favours Freddie. Still, even the names chosen by Telegraph parents often offer the possibility of a cutesy nickname in the same vein as those which are put on the birth certificate by ordinary-Joe parents. Frederick is HUGE among Telegraph parents, and I very much doubt they are all going by the full version. I have also seen parents I would consider to be in my fuzzy ‘middling’ category using nickname-names and other names that are often written off as low-class. It’s not that clear cut.

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June 14, 2014 11:34 AM

Nicknames were popular as given names in the '60s here, weren't they? It was generally more for girls, though, I think. A nickname like Alfie in the top ten definitely sounds odd. I agree with the above comment that most of those girls names sound like they'd fit right in in the South

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June 14, 2014 11:34 AM

Nicknames were popular as given names in the '60s here, weren't they? It was generally more for girls, though, I think. A nickname like Alfie in the top ten definitely sounds odd. I agree with the above comment that most of those girls names sound like they'd fit right in in the South

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