The Anglo-American Baby Name Divide: A view from this side of the pond
By Catherine Ens
As the old saying goes, “I remember faces, not names.” The opposite has always been true for me. By the age of about seven, I could confidently recite my class list and give the names of almost all the students in my school. As I grew up, there seemed to be only one profession that would allow me to ponder over names to the same extent that I did as a child, and so I grew up to become a teacher. And it gets better than that; I moved from my native Britain to become a teacher in the United States, where I had a whole new world of names to explore, and where I discovered that people often play the naming game in surprisingly different ways.
I love my job. Each September, I joyfully copy my second graders’ appellations onto name tags and into grade books – and then stand back to admire them. As I do so, I am often struck by the differences between parents’ choices here and in my own country. For their first homework assignment, I always ask my students to find out more about why their parents chose their name, and then to share this information with the class. As a name fanatic, I can’t help but devour these “name stories” and amaze at the naming differences on this side of the pond.
When I arrived in the United States as a college student from England, I met a fellow freshman who introduced himself as Grayson. Surely, I thought as we shook hands, that can’t be his first name. When he affirmed that it was, I had to really make sure by asking him if Grayson was his “real name” and not a nickname. I knew “surname names” were prevalent in American movies and TV, but I was still taken off guard to meet people who actually had them. Since those days, I have become very familiar with the all-American surname-as-a-first-name phenomenon, having taught children with names from Keegan and Griffin for boys to Taylor and Emerson for girls. Though there are some exceptions, for the most part surname names are still thought of as characteristically American by many Brits.
The girls I grew up with at home in the 80s and 90s were named Holly, Georgina, Colette, Nicola, Fiona and Philippa. These names, though very commonplace amongst my generation in the UK, are rarities in America. Although these choices haven’t all sustained in popularity, there are just as many girls’ names in Britain today that have not entered the American mainstream (consider Freya, Poppy, Lucy or Ruby).
As a teacher in an American suburb, I rarely come across British families, but when I do, I can almost always identify them simply by their children’s first names. When I saw that we had a new student named Maisie last fall, I knew beyond a reasonable doubt she would be British. The British trend for nickname names such as Evie, Millie, Alfie and Archie, as well as old-fashioned two-syllable names with an –ie ending, has yet to completely take off in the United States. I have taught at least one Sophia/Sofia every year in my American classroom, yet I would be taken aback to meet a little girl who goes by the familiarly British Sophie. Likewise, there were some American names that I came across in my first few years her that took me by surprise. Notably, the popularity of the girls’ name Kristen and its alternate spellings left me bewildered; I had never come across it in the UK.
By now, you’re probably thinking that I am going to make the argument that Brits are more traditional namers than Americans. Yet that would be far too simplistic when I consider that such classics as Elizabeth, Nora, Margaret or Mary are much more likely to be heard on toddlers stateside than back in England, where they are mostly still considered to be “old lady names.” I would be shocked to meet a little John, a Donald or a Jerry in the UK, yet I have taught them all here in the US. In the United States it is simply not unheard of to use a name that had its heyday in an earlier decade.
Part of the reason is the American tradition of bestowing the name of an older relative or ancestor on a newborn. Many of the little boys in my class were named after their fathers, while in Britain this is not as widespread. Parents back home often do choose to honor a family member, but if it happens to be a less “modern” sounding name, they are usually more inclined to put it in the middle spot than to use it for a first name.
One of the most interesting American naming traditions that I have discovered is that of heritage names. Some of the students I have taught in the US have had names that my British ears were truly amazed to hear on children; names such as Deirdre, Bridget, Graham, Albert, Terence and Geoffrey that faded from popularity several generations ago in the UK have a different feel on the other side of the pond. Although these names all originated in parts of the British Isles, to Brits today, they are more likely to belong to the grandparent than the baby. Yet in the United States, they may be powerful statements of English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh ancestry, and sound nothing but historical, mystical and grand.
In spite of many differences, I believe Anglo-American lines are becoming more blurred in today’s world, possibly because of increased travel and technology. When I was growing up in England in the 1990s, it started to become fashionable to give babies names that had an American sound to them, which often meant Old Testament names that had never really taken off in the UK such as Zachary, Jonah and Joshua, or names that were considered wholly American like Brittany (catapulted into our national consciousness by Britney Spears) and Madison.
In today’s world, we share much in common. Little Grace, Lily and Ava could be from either side of the pond, as could Jacob or Jack. In the US, British favorites such as Emma and Victoria are starting to sound more and more mainstream, while American choices like Sienna and Savannah are being heard around the UK. I predict that in the future, the name divide will not be so distinct. My American husband’s cousin recently named her baby girl Charlotte Rose – a name I believe would sound equally familiar no matter which side of the Atlantic you are on.
Catherine Ens was born and raised in Manchester, UK. She is a graduate of Boston College at the Lynch School of Education. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts with her American husband, where she teaches second grade. She enjoys cooking, travel, and classic movies.