What Makes a British Name British?

What Makes a British Name British?

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 popular British names 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:

Popular names in Wales

Seren, Ffion, Mali, Lowri, Cadi, Carys, Nia, Elin, Efa, Cerys, Thea

Osian, Morgan, Gethin, Cai, Jaxon, Ioan, Ieuan, Eli, Iestyn

Popular names in Scotland

Eilidh, Iona, Carly, Mirren, Aria, Ayla, Harper

Harris, Brodie, Cooper, Murray, Fraser, Angus, Arran, Blair, Ross, Calvin, Hamish, Callan

Popular names in England

Maryam, Violet, Francesca, Victoria, Aisha, Beatrice

Charles, Stanley, Theodore, Hugo, Teddy, Felix, Albert

Popular names in 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” British girl names 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 British boy name 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: Alfred “Alfie” Moon in Eastenders and Archibald “Archie” MacDonald 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 Alfie–James put our own British spin the good old Southern American style Mary–Jane and Billy–Bob.

Given that most of our popular names are short, hyphens also give Brits an extra bit of creative license. Boys can be Alfie–James, called “AJ” or Riley–Jay “RJ”. Ruby can be spiced up as Ruby–Tuesday or Ruby–Valentine.

About the Author

Eleanor Nickerson

Eleanor Nickerson

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.