Spot the odd one out in the following list of baby names: Izacc, Hemi, Henderson, Excellence, Bertrand, Alfie-J, Kylo, Kyrone, Colbie, Saint, L, Artjom, Theophilus, Nigel, Daenerys and Cobain.
The obvious answer is “Nigel” – because it’s the only one that’s traditional, solid and British.
But it’s also the only one that’s extinct.
Today, the Office for National Statistics released its annual compilation of baby names, revealing that Oliver and Olivia reign supreme as the most popular boys’ and girls’ names, with the former more than 1,000 newborns clear of its closest rival. Once you count up all the different variants, Oliver even beats Muhammad/Mohammed/Mohammad, much to the chagrin of tabloids with articles about the creeping Islamisation of Britain to dust off.
For those with an interest in politics, there are a few different messages to take away. The number of Jeremys is down from 78 in 2015 to 54 last year – so no sign of Corbynmania in the maternity ward. Then again, that’s hardly encouraging for the Tories, given there are only 19 Theresas (fewer even than the Enochs). As for David Cameron, his time as premier saw the number of children christened Cameron fall from 1,200 to 373.
But in naming as in life, Cameron can at least console himself that he isn’t as unpopular as Nigel Farage. Because when I searched for “Nigel”. It wasn’t there. There may be one or two children who were given the name – there have to be three examples to make it on to the ONS list – but only that. It has, to all intents and purposes, died out. Which, when you consider the rogue’s gallery of names that did make it on to the list, is pretty astonishing.
So what’s going on? Is this just a reaction to the Brexit referendum? Remainers shunning the hated Nigel, and Brexiteers feeling their kids will be picked on in the playground if they pay tribute to their hero?
Actually, I think something much more interesting is going on.
Here, for example, is the recent trajectory of my own name – the fine and admirably customisable name of Robert.
Despite the slight uptick this last year, the trend is clear – down, down and down.
It’s not alone. Take Jeremy – which, like Nigel, had a bit of a moment between 1950 and 1970 before falling away again. Whatever your views on Mr Corbyn, there’s no doubt that it’s a perfectly fine, perfectly traditional name.
Yet look at the names around it. In particular, look at “Kylo”. This was a name that, as Google Ngrams confirms, did not exist in the English language until 2015. Then JJ Abrams invented it as the name of the villain in his new Star Wars movie. When it comes to naming, Corbynmania may be powerful – but the Force is more so.
Naming a child is one of the most important moments in a parent’s life. So the names that we choose to use are enormously revealing.
And what the ONS list, above all, shows is the death of deference, of hierarchy, of tradition. More formal names are being inexorably squeezed out by simpler, chattier, almost babyfied variants of themselves. On the boys’ list, there are six times more Alfies than Alfreds (and more if you count all the Alfie-Lees and Alfie-Jameses); four times more Charlies than Charleses. Robert is holding strong against Rob, and even Robbie – but has fallen well behind Bobby. Even Jackson has been overtaken by Jaxon.
Ours is a culture (as I wrote in my book, The Great Acceleration) in which social trends move faster than ever – in which as many babies can be named after a new Star Wars character as the leader of the Labour Party. In which it’s not just celebrities who are naming their kids things like Apple, Shiloh, Blue Ivy, Harper Seven or (God help us) Moxie Crimefighter. In which what we call our children – like pretty much everything else – is seen as a vehicle for our own self-expression, rather than a gesture of respect towards tradition, whether familial or societal.
My point here is not to argue that we should go back to naming our children only after kings, queens and saints. It’s that anyone interested in politics has to understand the context in which they’re operating. It’s one in which people are less respectful of tradition and precedent, less willing to do things because they’ve always been done, or because someone tells them it’s their duty to do so.
That has its good points, but also its bad. For example, it breeds a certain short-termism. When people like me tried, during the election campaign, to point out all the ghastly things that Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Seumas Milne had said over the years, all the wrong-headed positions they’ve taken and hideous regimes they’d supported, we were doing so at a time when people care less about the past than ever. Even having supported the IRA during the Troubles was viewed as ancient history.
There is also a more basic point still. The one thing that leaps out at you from this data, both about boys and girls, is how genuinely multicultural Britain is. There are Polish names, African names, American names, Indian names – all the spellings and variations you could imagine. We’re no longer a nation of Nigels, but of Agamjots and Kacpers and Brodys and Omars and Dawuds too. The Jeremys and Theresas of this world had better get ready for them.
Update: I originally argued in this piece that the churn in names had increased in recent years. That may be true – but the effect that I cited me was actually due to the ONS adding more data points to its graph for the years after 1990. Apologies for the unwitting error.