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What makes a British name British?..and other questions about Anglo names answered.

posted by: Elea View all posts by this author

By Eleanor Nickerson, British Baby Names

What names are quintessentially ‘British’?

I see this question a lot but it’s a hard one to pin down. Do we mean solely British in origin, or only British in use? When Prince George was born our media heralded it as a “quintessentially British” name — and why not? We’ve had numerous kings bear the name, and it’s even the name of the patron saint of England. But George was originally a Greek name, brought late into our Royalty by German Hanovarians. Ask many Americans and the first George they think of is Washington or Bush.

For me, the quintessentially British names are those which are very familiar to us as a nation, that have been or are currently popular, but are little used in America, Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries. Names such as Nicola – our darling of the 70s – Darcy, Imogen, Poppy, Freya, Alfie, Jenson, Gareth, Alistair and Finlay.

What names are ‘trendy’ in Britain?

The most common formula for a popular British name at the moment is two syllables + ‘ee’ ending. The examples of these are numerous, from the classic Lucy and Henry, diminutive Molly and Alfie, surname Darcy and Riley to vintage Ruby and Stanley.
Two syllable -a endings take second place for girls (Isla, Ava, Mia, Freya, Eva, Lola) while boys also have -n endings (Ethan, Mason, Jenson, Logan, Reuben).

I know there is a difference between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but is there really much of a name difference? Aren‘t they all just ‘British names’?

Yes and no. Essentially, the majority of the most popular names in England are the same as those in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Olivia, Sophie, Isla, Jack, Harry and Charlie and the like can all be called ‘popular British names.’

However, it is easy to fall into the trap that England = Britain. Scotland and Northern Ireland release their statistics separately to England and Wales, and even the latter have two separate top 100 lists. The following names have only appeared on one country’s top 100 list in recent years:

Wales:

Seren, Ffion, Mali, Lowri, Cadi, Carys, Nia, Elin, Efa, Cerys, Thea
Osian, Morgan, Gethin, Cai, Jaxon, Ioan, Ieuan, Eli, Iestyn

Scotland:

Eilidh, Iona, Carly, Mirren, Aria, Ayla, Harper
Harris, Brodie, Cooper, Murray, Fraser, Angus, Arran, Blair, Ross, Calvin, Hamish, Callan

England:

Maryam, Violet, Francesca, Victoria, Aisha, Beatrice
Charles, Stanley, Theodore, Hugo, Teddy, Felix, Albert

Northern Ireland:

Aoife, Caoimhe, Eimear, Clodagh, Farrah, Cora, Eabha, Saoirse, Meabh, Lara, Catherine, Lucia
Oisin, Darragh, Shea, Ronan, Odhran, Eoin, Caolan, Cillian, Lorcan, Niall, Daire, Tiernan, Cormac

What’s up with Jessica in the top 10?! It’s such an 80s name!

This is one of the most common things I see on forums when the name lists for either England and Wales or Scotland are released.

Yes, Jessica was a popular name in the UK in the 80s but, unlike in the US where it was #1 or #2 from 1881 to 1997, it never had the same exposure here. In 1984 Jessica was only #40 in England and Wales and had only reached the top 10 by 1994 where it has been ever since.

Our equivalent “80s” names in Britain are Gemma and Emma. Gemma is already out of the top 500 while Emma is on a slow and steady decline down the top 100.

What are the dominant cultural influences?

Beyond our own indigenous Celtic names, the most prominent cultural influences come from our widespread Muslim and Polish communities.

With all the spellings added together, Muhammad was the most popular names for boys in England and Wales in 2013. Aisha, Maryam, Fatima, Aaliyah, Amina, Ibrahim, Yusuf, Ayaan and Rayyan also make the combined top 100.

Polish spellings are also prevalent. Within the top 500 in England, Wales and Scotland are Oliwia, Maja, Wiktoria, Aleksandra, Zofia, Dawid, Jakub, Szymon, Mateusz, Kacper (more popular than Casper), Oliwier, Wiktor, Franciszek, Oskar, Bartosz and many more.

American television and media is also plays a key role. Paige, Maddison, Ethan, Mason, Tyler, Jayden and Kayden have all migrated into our top 100 lists and Neveah, Miley, Savannah, Jackson, Carter and Corey are in the top 200 thanks to American influence.

Why are so many of your popular names nicknames?

The main reason we love nickname-names is because they hearken back to a bygone era of flappers and flat caps. They are an intrinsic part of our cultural heritage, feeling friendly and comfortable. And while parents weren’t quite ready to resurrect Millicent, Mildred or Archibald, their diminutives Millie and Archie handily fit the very popular “two-syllable + ‘ee’ ending” trend.

It is also worth bearing in mind that thirty years ago the likes of Daisy, Alfie and Betty were the affluent hipster names and, as they generally do, they eventually filtered down to the general masses. Several popular TV characters also played a big part: AlfredAlfieMoon in Eastenders and ArchibaldArchieMacDonald in Monarch of the Glen did wonders for boosting their respective names (the latter also helped boost Molly and Lexie). This then paved the way for other vintage diminutive names.

And what’s with all the hyphenated names?

This question is hard to answer but I feel the answer lies with the fact that most popular first names follow the major trend of two syllable + ee ending and our most popular middle names (Rose, Grace, May, James, Lee etc) are one syllable. Put together , our Lily-Roses, Ellie-Mays, Tommy-Lees and AlfieJames put our own British spin the good old Southern American style MaryJane and BillyBob.

Given that most of our popular names are short, hyphens also give Brits an extra bit of creative license. Boys can be AlfieJames, called “AJ” or RileyJay “RJ”. Ruby can be spiced up as RubyTuesday or RubyValentine.

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Elea Berry Juice profile image

About the author

Elea

Eleanor Nickerson, better known to Nameberry message board visitors as Elea, is a primary school teacher living in Coventry, England and author of the blog British Baby Names.
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16 Responses to “What makes a British name British?..and other questions about Anglo names answered.”

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Sorceress Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 5:19 am

I like Saskia, and I think this names seems so British. It may be that I heard it on British baby name site.

SerenRuby Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 5:31 am

Saskia is dutch as far as I know ?

Thanks for this article, it’s very informative, I hope we’ll get more like this 🙂

namesnerd Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 7:13 am

Really enjoyed this article! Also a big fan of your blog.

Having just learned you’re a primary teacher, you must come across lots of names of children that pique your interest. Any particular favourites?

mermuse Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 7:55 am

Thanks, yeah, love the blog!

I think this goes along really well with what I see as the Americans following the Brits a few decades later. When you said that Daisy and Betty were hipster there thirty years ago, I was like, wow! And Emma is old news there? Of course, I guess we throw a few back at you (maybe it’s all one big loop–Jennifer?), but I think that if you look at what is popular in Britain now, 20 years from now, it will be popular in America. Although there are always a few that you keep to yourself, but with us berries on the case, we’re going to steal the best from you (like Imogen and Arabella!)

Eleanor Nickerson Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 8:10 am

@Sourceress: You’re not wrong. Saskia had a reputation a few decades ago as being a name used among the upper classes in Britain. It peaked at #125 in 1999 when Saskia Duncan was a character on Eastenders.

@SerenRuby: Thank you!

@namesnerd: Thanks. I think I like the sibsets best. In my current school my favourites are a Harriet and Beatrix, Iason and Ares and Brierley and Corelli (both boys). Some of my previous favourites have been:

Sonny & Zephyr (twins)
Hadassah & Sarai
Sebastian “Seb”, Clemency “Clemmie”, Rose & Gabriel
Malachi “Mally”, Elijah, Josiah “JJ”, Zebediah “Zebby” & Delilah
Rupert & Jemima

Eleanor Nickerson Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 8:19 am

@memuse: Emma is still in the top 100 here. It’s a solid perennial classic. However, the majority of British Emmas are in their 20s or 30s now.

We get a lot of mainstream names (i.e. they move straight into the charts without gradually fanning out from hipster usage outwards) from American TV. Skyler, Nevaeh, Payton, Aubree, Carter, Jaxon etc are have all been directly imported into the general populace here and are rising.

Perhaps our ‘trendy’ names are influenced by the US, and the US ‘hipster’ names are influenced by the UK?

Chloe14 Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 8:41 am

I’m British I live in the UK and Jessica has always been popular over here! Lot’s of news mums wanted their daughter to be called Jessica with the nickname of Jess or Jessie I know a lot of Jessica’s where I live I have a friend named this and lots of people in my school are named this and I also have a relative who lives up in Cornwall named Jessica! My parents were going to name me this but in the end another person in my family was already given the name so my parents chose not to name me this because it would look like they were copying but my parents always dreamed about naming a child this and they thought of it long before I came along so actually my parents came up with it first and that’s the same with the name Olivia (But I hate the name Olivia but love the name Jessica)! So in the end they named me Chloe and I love my name and would not have it any other way! (My name Chloe was very popular during the late 90’s) because that’s when I was born! But my name is misspelled alot it’s Chloe but people spelt my name like Cloe Chloey Cloey and that really annoy’s me! And when my Grandma was little she had an older friend named Jennifer. Some other popular names over here are Lauren, Katie, Kailyn, Katherine, Rosie, Chloe, Jessica, Olivia, Bethany, Lily, Jennifer, Kate, Phoebe, Beth, Emily, Ellie and things like that! And for boy’s over in the UK the most popular names are Oliver, Robert, Daniel, Michael, Harry, Henry, Jack, James, Dan, Matthew and things like that! And if I had turned out to be a boy I was going to be named Robert.

BritishAmerican Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Yes, I grew up in the UK with a cousin Emma and there were 2 or 3 Emmas in my grade at school, so it definitely is not one I considered for my own kids.

From your comment above, Jemima does sound extra English to me because of the Beatrix Potter character and since it’s not used very much in the US.

Maisie is one that stood out to me in 2005 when I was looking at the England top 100 in comparison to the US top 100. I think it’s technically Scottish though.

My half American half English kids are named Rose, Henry and George. All of which worked out well on the English theme, even moreso since Prince George was born.

Oliver is one that we nearly used that was more English sounding to me, due to popularity there and the Charles Dickens character.

senseandsensibility Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 4:49 pm

It was very nice post to read, and a lot of useful info as well.
I am Polish (well, half-Polish, but let’s say it’s just Polish) living in UK, and I was surprised seeing so many Polish names in UK’s top 1000 when the lists were published, but it’s quite a community here so I shouldn’t be that surprised after all… I just keep forgetting it’s so many of us living in UK ; )
Funny thing is, you put the names Aaliyah and Aisha in the Muslim section where they belong, but I know two Polish mums (both living in London) who used these names on their daughters! So apparently not only Muslims are using such names ; ) and I think it could be the same with Polish names – you did not include Lena in Polish section, which is highly popular in Poland (currently at no.1 !!!), so it’s also highly popular among Polish community in UK; my point is, name Lena can be used by Polish, but as well by Brits, Russians, Eastern Europeans and Balkan Countries’ communities such as Serbians or Croatians. Or anybody, really. It’s all quite complicated and well, interesting!

mckaylalove Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 5:42 pm

This is a really good examination of British names. Thank you!

SparkleNinja18 Says:

August 27th, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Ugh I wish Emma would start declining in the US! The name has been done and done and done again… and done and done again! I’m so tired of it. Emma isn’t pretty, it’s reached the point of boring.

P.S. I really hope no one has used Ruby-Tuesday, lol.

Eleanor Nickerson Says:

August 28th, 2014 at 5:37 am

@senseandsensibility: I had noticed how popular Lena was getting but I had put it down as yet another example of a vintage revival. Lena wasn’t uncommon in Victorian England. It makes a lot more sense to know that it is so popular among Polish parents. Thanks!

@SparkleNinja18: Indeed there are! 3 babies were named Ruby-Tuesday in England and Wales in 2013 and one baby was named Ruby-Valentine in Scotland in 2013.

lumen Says:

August 28th, 2014 at 8:26 am

Thank you for writing this, Elea. I always enjoy reading your articles; they are very well-researched and informative.

I would consider India and Saffron to be very British as well. From my observation they don’t seem to be nearly as common in America.

Whirligig Says:

August 28th, 2014 at 9:39 am

@lumen It depends if you are talking about ‘British’ names or ‘Names Popular in England’. I wouldn’t necessarily call India or Saffron ‘British’ but they are definitely more familiar over here.

Lovely article by the way 🙂

marypoppins Says:

August 30th, 2014 at 5:58 am

The sibset Rupert & Jemima just screams “British” to me 🙂

» What makes a British name British?..and other questions about Anglo names answered. Baby Name Suggestion Says:

August 31st, 2014 at 10:48 am

[…] What’s trendy in Britain? Why all the nickname names? And so many hyphenated ones? These and all the other questions you’ve ever had about British names are once and for all answered by expert Eleanor Nickerson. Nameberry – Baby Name Blog […]

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