The Anglo-American Baby Name Divide

The Anglo-American Baby Name Divide

Move to a different country, you’ll encounter the unfamiliar – new culture, customs, food, weather and attitudes.  I was prepared for that when I left America to live in Britain. Even the language –notionally the same in both nations – had its variants: biccy for cookie, jumper for sweater, lift for elevator and the English tendency to jam a silent ‘u’ into the middle of perfectly ordinary words.  All of this was to be expected. The one difference I hadn’t anticipated, and that took me by surprise, was in the way British name their children, and the coded meaning of those names.

For obvious reasons, baby names are still THE topic of the day in Britain, following the much anticipated birth and naming announcements of Baby Cambridge.  To everyone’s surprise, the string of names was shortened from four to three, beginning with the consistent front-runner George, followed by the somewhat less expected Alexander and Louis.

But despite the diminished thickness of the royal baby’s name sandwich, the whole package will be distilled down to a single nickname. This nickname will be very affectionate. It may also be a little goofy, because that is what the upper classes do in Britain: they give a child a long line of important, reverent names, dripping with heritage, and then reduce them to one irreverent tag. 

For example, an upper class British family of my acquaintance has a great many uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins. I’ve met them all, stayed with them many times, but if you held a lit match to my toes I still wouldn’t be able to come up with their real names. Everyone, from friends to business associates, knows the members of this cultured, well-educated family by the following nicknames: Pookie, Wacky, Barkie, Bunny, Shrimpie, Goatie, Essie, Abblie, Pila, Pippi, Plotta, Lully, Tig, Pin, Toot and Blodge.

The American analogue to the British upper- and upper middle classes, are of course the preppies and those who aspire to preppydom. This segment of American society tends to give its children traditional names in the style of the British upper- and upper-middle classes, and for the same reasons: like their British counterparts, they are referencing their heritage and predecessors.

But the similarities end there.

The parents of America’s first families often favor masculine first names for their daughters:  Kyle, Blaine, Blake and Elliot are not uncommon. They’re also happy to christen children of both sexes with surnames as first names: Anderson, Brooks, Walker. It’s one more way to fit their forefathers into the naming mix. The British upper and upper-middle classes generally shun these styles, characterizing them as trendy and too unconventional.

Conversely, when it comes to nicknames, US preppies seem to prefer the relatively conventional; an American boy may wear a jaunty, sporty tag – Trip or Scooter – and both sexes may be known, familiarly, by shortened, diminutive versions of their given names —Tom or Tommy, Chaz, Lizzie and Gaby — but they don’t tend to embrace the silly, sardonic sobriquets that appeal to the British uppers.

In fact, if the naming or, rather, nick-naming quirks of the British uppers have an American counterpart, it would be with Americans from the southern states and, more specifically, with that strata of Southern society that is disparagingly described as redneck. Honey Boo Boo is more akin to the intimate, irreverent spirit of an upper class Brit nickname than any Scooter, Trip or Ty.

The truth is, despite the fact that the two nations share a language, the differences in baby naming habits are great. There is one major similarity, though: in both Britain and America, baby names are very much about aspiration. Heritage and aesthetics come into it, of course, as does the desire to honor a beloved and/or important relative. But in the main, in both the USA and the UK, the names parents give their children reflect the hopes and dreams they have for their offspring.

But there, of course, the difference is in the nature of those aspirations.

Putting aside regional and cultural issues, certain generalities can be made about the distinctions between baby naming in the UK versus the USA:

In Britain, naming aspirations adhere to class boundaries and conventions.  In America, it can be argued that class is less of an issue, perhaps even a non-issue, given that it’s a country that celebrates the self-created individual. Conceivably, if a Russian or Vietnamese or Peruvian immigrant aspires to have her American-born child perceived as a Mayflower descendant, then they might choose names such as Jefferson, Bradley, Nathaniel, John Adams, Quincy or Zachary. And no one would laugh or even judge. Those parents’ aspirations would be out there for everyone to see – and respect.  But immigrant or working class British parents, whatever their aspirations, would be squeamish about reaching that high and revealing those aspirations. As a result, they would tend to steer clear of traditional, upper-class sounding names such as Sophie, Charles, Emma, James, Arabella, Toby and Henry. To hang such a name on a child in that milieu would be construed as putting on airs.

Victorian and Regency names with royal connotations (Louise, Beatrice, Albert, George, Eugenie, Victoria, Clarissa, Jane, David and Annabel) are always in favor with British upper and upper-middle class parents; oddly enough, the grandest families are also partial to what are known as housemaid names: Ruby, Mabel, Daisy, Matilda and Rose.

Americans like what I call alphabet grouping for their children’s names: an entire family of ‘K’ or ‘J’ names, for example: Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, or Jasmine, Jessica and Jaden. In the UK, those kinds of euphonious links would be considered lower class, as would the style of naming one’s child after a celebrity, a Kylie, Britney or Elton.

Celebrity baby names, in fact, are anomalies; in essence, celebrities are a nation unto themselves. But even among British celebrities, there are distinctions and conventions within the realm of baby naming. In America, celebrity baby names are accepted as the provenance of the great and wacky. Apple, Blue Ivy, North West,  none of these names is assessed in class terms. In Britain, though, celebrity baby names do not escape the strictures of class and convention. For example, the names assigned to the Beckham children – Brooklyn, Romeo – and to the children of other sporting icons (footballer Wayne Rooney gave both his sons ‘K’ names) are judged as distinctly lower-middle class. In contrast, actress Kate Winslet satisfied the naming criteria for an upper-middle class creative by calling her daughter Mia Honey and her son, Joe Alfie. Similarly, keeping within the boundaries of upper-class bohemianism  is singer Bryan Ferry; he and his wife named their children Otis, Perry, Merlin, Tara and Isaac. Eccentric, but very much of a certain class.

It would have been nice to be able to write a piece comparing British and American baby names and not have to discuss class values. But the reality is that while American names are often about aspiring toward a certain world or status, British names are all too often about guarding status and ensuring your child’s name conveys the right class message.

I was called Michelle in honor and memory of my grandmother Minnie. In New Jersey, where I grew up, Michelle was considered rather exotic, a pretty and even glamorous handle. Imagine my surprise when I moved to Britain and discovered I was in possession of what’s known in the UK as a soap opera name – code for lower class (in America, soap operas are aspirational, peopled with upper- and upper-middle types; in Britain the settings are working and lower class), a name that was clearly trying too hard.

Michelle ShepherdBarron is a writer and professional namer, with bases in London and New York. In her blog, whatiwaswearing, she writes about life as an American in England, river swimming, motherhood and trying not to smoke.  Her twitter address is: @M_S_Barron.