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.


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9 Responses to “The Anglo-American Baby Name Divide: A view from this side of the pond”

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orphanedhanyou Says:

August 18th, 2013 at 11:40 pm

-not entered the American mainstream (consider Freya, Poppy, Lucy or Ruby).

-In the US, British favorites such as Emma and Victoria are starting to sound more and more mainstream.

other than Freya and barely Poppy, what is she talking about? am i the only American that thinks these are all common names?

alphabetdem Says:

August 19th, 2013 at 12:04 am

I think we simply tend to be a little bit behind the British. Names like Emma, Victoria, Amelia, and Lucy are popular now, but were much more popular in the UK first.

My SO were talking earlier tonight actually about how similar names were becoming across the pond. It’s like the rise of this pervasive mass media has bled our cultures into each other. The world has gotten smaller because of the internet, and it’s showing up in baby names. We Americans aren’t into the nicknamey names as singular names, but we definitely love all those names as nicknames for longer names. Just to add on to the final thought in this essay.

clairels Says:

August 19th, 2013 at 12:14 am

Wait–so there are certain commonalities that all Brits share? So the common folks in the UK ARE allowed to name their kids Emma and Sophia after all? I’m shocked–SHOCKED! Thank you for an enlightening, reasonable post, free from the nauseating obsession with class that tends to consume Americans when trying to write about the UK.

charlieandperry1 Says:

August 19th, 2013 at 6:43 am

Haha… ‘last fall’- you’ve picked up the lingo then! And I congratulate you on an informative, interesting article which identifies differences without making constant references to class! It can be done!

I do like the differences in style on the different sides of the pond. I agree with the dated/grandad name thing too. It’s not so much Albert, which is becoming quite hip, but definitely Ian, Gavin or Desmond which tickle me when I see them. They’re quite out of place on a British baby! I also find the variety of names from different cultures interesting- Juan, Miguel and other Spanish names are prevalent on the US charts but it’s not uncommon to see names Oliwia and Mohammed on the English ones. And pop influences too- Khloe in the US, Jensen over here.

I think we’re both behind each other in each other’s styles, if you get what I mean. Isla only recently made it into the US lists (and I’ve seen some US berries predict Freya and Imogen will catapult into the top 1000) and the surname/’ayden’ trends are starting to become evident over here. Interesting stuff!

hermione_vader Says:

August 19th, 2013 at 7:26 am

Holly isn’t very rare in the U. S.—I’m 23 and I’ve known three Hollys around my age over the years. In fact, Holly was in the Top 100 from 1969 to 1989.

I’ve also known a Nichola, but I eventually found out that her mother was British. I wish we’d use that variant more often. It’s a very pretty alternative to Nicole (which is also pretty, but much more common).

One thing that confuses me about dated British names: I once found a British article defending the name Derek, which is how I found out it’s considered a hopeless old man name in the UK. And then a poster here said that if they heard about two brothers named Derek and Ian, they’d assumed those were older gentlemen. The opposite is true in the U.S.—those are young man (but not little boy) names. If I heard of two brothers named Derek and Ian, I’d assumed they could be anywhere between 15-35 years old.

Also, thank you for not centering your argument around class. I think Americans go in that directions because they get wrapped in the whole aristocracy thing, which is quite foreign to us.

sapphires Says:

August 19th, 2013 at 10:20 am

Ugh. I hate articles on the “differences” between US and UK naming – they always make it sounds like everyone in the UK only likes classic/traditional/”pretentious” names. Truth is, I’ve met more babies with names like Rhylie and Aleeah {yep, unfortunately} than Sophies or Henrys.

In 2012, the top names in England & Wales {Scotland and Ireland have their own lists} were Amelia and Harry. There were 729,674 babies born in England & Wales last year. Of these 729,674 babies, only 7,186 were named Harry – a grand total of just under 1% of babies born that year. Likewise for girls, 7,061 babies were named Amelia. That’s still only 0.9% of babies with the name. There are thousands of names used in England and Wales every year, not to mention the cultural difference as you go throughout England and throughout Wales. And generalising the whole of the UK like this is ridiculous – Scotland and Ireland have separate lists with different “popular” names {although many are similar}, and different cultures and practices.

It just really angers me to see people stereotyping the whole of the UK like this – I was born in London, and my mother is from Yorkshire and I’ve spent time in both – they’re two very different places. Plus, like I said before, I’ve met more children with “trendy” names {more akin to the USA’s stereotype} than with the “classy” names that belong to the UK’s stereotype.

Also, like Hayley said, there are a lot of names that cross over within the top 10/20 or so. A lot of names are popular in England and Wales first, and then catch on in the States, but the “styles” are not extremely different. Fair enough, some names that were mentioned in the article – Graham, for example – would be seen as hopelessly dated over here, but a lot of people in this group from the States seem to like it, so obviously certain names are perceived differently in different places, but generalising three entire countries? I’m sure there are many little girls in the USA named Amelia or Poppy, and several little boys with names like Samuel and Oscar.

This article completely contradicts what many other articles on this topic state. The author says “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”, which is just wrong. If you look at the top 20 or so names, most of them are vintage/classic/traditional, with a few exceptions. “Modern” names really aren’t a big thing here at all if you just use the ONS list. Of course it varies regionally, but in the whole of England and Wales, “old” names are still very popular.

I get what the author was trying to say – that there ARE differences on both sides – but she seems to have caught the wrong idea completely.

charlieandperry1 Says:

August 19th, 2013 at 12:47 pm

@sapphires: See, I disagree. I think you’re missing the point. I think it’s fine to broadly compare the styles in two whole countries- how else would we compare? Region to region? City to city? It would take forever and be incredibly boring, not to mention impossible. Of course there’s regional differences, there will be in the US too. But the names in the ONS lists are the most popular for a reason- they’re widely used throughout ALL of England and Wales (and the rest of the UK too). The regional breakdowns are all pretty similar too- it’s not like all 7,061 Amelias were born in Yorkshire or the South East. Yeah, lots of names are used but 1% is a massive percentage compared to those ‘thousands’ of other names lower down the lists. It’s not stereotyping when you use actual facts.

The author doesn’t come across as someone only suggesting we use ‘classic/traditional/pretentious’ names. Even if she had, she’d be largely correct. Statistically, you are more likely to meet more Sophies and Henrys than Rhylies and Aleeahs. Just because you may know more kids with those names doesn’t make them popular. I work with kids and know several little Lowennas but I’ve never met an Isla. That doesn’t make Lowenna more popular than Isla.

And I don’t think we’re ‘not extremely different’ at all. Of the E&W top 100 names, 12 girls names and 8 boys names don’t even rank at all in the US charts (Poppy has never been in the top 1000 there EVER so I don’t think there are many little Poppys running around) and many others rank significantly lower. There are obviously differences between the countries, as you admit yourself, and it’s interesting to see what these are, especially from the POV of an ex-pat.

As for the honouring in the middle bit, I think you may have it wrong. She says ‘less modern’ sounding names. The names in the top 20 sound modern to me as they’re popular now. I take ‘less modern’ to mean honouring a dated name- for example, a Grandad Ronald. American parents are likely to have a Ronald James IV but as a Brit, you should know that’s very rare over here and British parents are more likely to put the dated name in the middle and have an Alfie Ronald or a Charlie Ronald.

Overall, I think the article is fine for a brief comparison of the styles. I wasn’t expecting (and I don’t particularly care to see) an in-depth analysis of the top names in an ultra-specific area. “This is what I’ve seen in the US, this is what I’ve seen in the UK- see the differences.” Great. The author’s done a fine job.

misskendra Says:

August 20th, 2013 at 8:28 pm

This gave me a little laugh. I always say my kids John and Graham are middle aged British men. This just backed that up a little bit

Anaxandra Says:

March 18th, 2014 at 10:56 am

Naming trends are pretty different in different areas of the states. Sure you get Emma and Sophia in top spots in any state but the naming trends the author states aren’t how people around here name their children. Naming a child after a relative isn’t common, unless it happens to be currently fashionable. It’s usually put in the middle spot, or changed to sound more modern. Surname names are also not big here, except for the really popular ones, like Madison. It’s definitely a more recent trend.

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