No, Muhammad Isn't the Top Baby Name In England. But...

Dec 2nd 2014

First things first: ignore any screaming headlines you see claiming that Muhammad is now the U.K.'s #1 name for boys. The most recent national statistics for England and Wales rank the name Muhammad at #15, only half as popular as the real #1. In the rest of the U.K. it's even less common.

The headlines were inspired a press release, which reported on the top names submitted by that site's users. Their list may differ from national stats for multiple reasons. Most obviously, a website's user base isn't a representative sample of a whole country. For instance, no Spanish boys' names ever crack the USA top-100 list produced by Babycentre's U.S. sister site -- no José, no Angel, no Luis.

Further, the Babycentre tally combined variations of some names in its count. They apparently treated most global forms of Muhammad/Mohamed/Muhamet as one, while names like Sophie and Sophia, Eve, Eva, and Evie were all counted separately. My take-away lessons: when you're studying name popularity demand actual government stats, and list every name for clarity.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get to the real heart of this story. The apparent rise of Muhammad struck a nerve because it seemed to signal a momentous change in Britain's population. If you look closely at the names, though, I think there's a subtler factor at work. Imagine for a moment that the headlines hadn't read "Muhammad Is Now the #1 Baby Name in Britain!" Imagine that they said instead:

"More British Babies Are Named Muhammad Than Oliver!"

That doesn't seem nearly so momentous, does it? The single baby name Oliver obviously represents only a tiny slice of the population. Yet tiny-slice Oliver is the U.K.'s real #1 name.

To me, this story isn't only about the rising Muslim population in England. It's about the rapidly changing way non-Muslims name their babies.

The fact that Muhammad is even in the discussion of top names is remarkable, given that the Muslim community represents only one in ten births in the U.K. In centuries past, the names John and Mary alone would have dwarfed that entire Muslim baby population. But John and Mary no longer crack the top 100 in England. Only one English boy in a thousand is named John. Even the #1 boy's name accounts for only one boy in fifty.

Muhammad, in various spellings, is given to one in five Muslim boys in the UK. The "anchor names" of Islamic tradition continue to dominate, while the anchor names of Christian tradition are being abandoned on fashion grounds. It's telling that more English girls today receive the Arabic name Maryam than its English equivalent Mary.

What we're seeing is two changes in the baby name population at once. The first is a religious demographic shift, the second an attitude/style shift away from tradition -- one which varies by religious demographic. The result is a huge name-style gap. Given that names represent our hopes, dreams and values, that's a gap worth paying attention to. In the United States, growing differences in how groups name their babies have signaled deeper rifts in mutual understanding and good will.