Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Robert and Roger as names are just as sweet... Popularity of men’s names over the centuries
by Donald Hatch
(After seven centuries in the top 20 Robert declined to 39th place in 2001)
In 2001 there were as many as two thousand forenames in use in England, which means that it will be relatively easy in the future to trace individuals; even the commonest names such as John Smith, Jack Jones or Tom Brown are currently held by only about one man in one hundred thousand. Only one in 3600 future weddings will be between a William and a Katie, the 10th most common forenames in 2001 (assuming they do actually marry... ). Second names are also general, which further helps to distinguish between persons. If however we go back to the Victorian period, we discover that the number of names in common use was much smaller and only a minority of new-borns were registered with a second forename. In earlier centuries, the range was even more limited. We all know of the problems of differentiating those Johns and Sarahs, Thomases and Elizabeths.
This article deals with changes in the popularity of men’s names in England. The sources of the information will be given in a second article covering women’s names. To deal with the particular problem of the treatment of the various spellings in use for the same name, I have chosen to treat homonyms (names with the same sound but different spellings) as one name, e.g. Sydney and Sidney, Ann and Anne. In addition commonly used diminutives have been counted under the full name, Tom as Thomas, Joe as Joseph, Ellie as Ellen, etc.
The 13th, 17th and 18th centuries
Based on a sample of 4000 Essex names in the 13th century and somewhat smaller samples from three Buckinghamshire parishes in the 17th and 18th centuries, as few as ten names accounted for 62% of all baptisms in the 13th century and as many as 78 to 86% in the 17th and 18th centuries. Second forenames were virtually unknown amongst the common people.
*4007 names from the Essex Feet of Fines, (with modernised spellings, e.g. John for Iohannis)
All the names listed, and indeed all the top 20 are in common use today. There are however a number of names that occurred rarely in the 13th century (about 5 occurrences in 1000) which are now unknown, such as Baldwin, Osbert, Ranulf, and Sawal. Less common still were Alured, Ernulf, Fulk, Hamo, Imbert, Odo, Pagan and Saher. Of the 110 names occurring more than once in the 13th century sample, about 40 are now obsolete.
There is little change in four centuries and all of the commonest 17th century names are in use today, even Edmund. Of the 90-odd names in the sample only a few have become obsolete; Calib, Lazerus and Obadiah being examples. The less common names were often Biblical.
Late 18th century
Once again there was little change in the choice of names in a conservative rural England. Second names were still very rare and the concentration on a few popular names was even more marked, 86% of all males sharing the top 10 names in this small sample of baptisms. The Biblical names still dominated the other 14%. There was a King George on the British throne from 1714 to 1830 which may have contributed to the continuing popularity of this name.
It remains curious that in spite of the large families which would suggest the need for a larger range of names, parents actually often chose to give a child a name already given earlier to a brother or sister who had died in infancy. The practice of giving the parents’ names to the first boy and girl also tended to limit the range of names in use.
The Victorian period
The great social and industrial changes in England in this period were also marked by major changes in the use of forenames. The excellent FreeBMD data base of civil registrations since 1837 allowed large samples to be analysed; 52000 men who married between 1867 and 1886 (and were therefore born in the early Victorian period) and separate samples of about 2500 male births at 15 year intervals from 1838 to 1893. The larger sample of 52000 men yielded 502 different names, and although the top 10 still accounted for 72% of the total, one in a hundred men shared about 300 separate names, most of which are still in use today. Some indeed, once rare, have become commonplace; see under “Losers and winners”. The table shows the development of the top 10 in Victorian England:-
Table 2 – Most common names given in the Victorian period
The 20th century
More and more names came into use, and the rankings began to show marked fluctuations especially after 1945. Table 3 indicates movements in the most popular names during the course of the 20th century.
Table 3 – Most common names given in the 20th Century
It has been the post-war period, and in particular the last twenty years, that has seen the greatest increase in the use of new and unusual names. There is a certain element of fashion in this. In the Victorian period, the rise of a name such as “Albert” was clearly linked to the Prince Consort of the time (although fewer than one in 3000 couples dared to call their daughter Victoria).
Names in 2001
Many of today’s popular names are also subject to the whims of fashion (e.g. Dylan, Kieran, Callum, Ryan), although the Biblical names are still strong. The most conspicuous feature is the great number of names in use and the consequently much lower frequency of even the most common ones. In 1838 every third baby boy was registered as William or John, in 2001 only 1 in 16 was a Thomas or James (or Tom or Jamie). The top 10 now only account for 25% of males, and the total number of names in use (with at least 10 registered births in 2001) is about 750.
Table 4 – Most common names given 2001
In some cases the diminutive has become (much) more popular than the original name; Harry is now 5 times as common as Henry; but Henry outnumbered Harry by 11 to 1 in the sample of Victorian bridegrooms. The same is true for Charlie, now nearly twice as common as Charles, but almost never used in Victorian times. Of course, there is a small effect from the introduction of non-English names from immigrants, the most common of which are Mohammed (and variants), 12th place with 1.7% and Hamza, Abdul and Hassan (ranking 93, 94 and 96, each with 0.2%). This effect was limited in the past to infrequent occurrences of Irish, Scottish and Welsh names. Losers and winners
It is interesting to look at names that were popular in the Victorian period and have now sunk almost without trace, and those names that were rare then but common now.
Of the top 28 names (90% of all registrations) in the early Victorian period none have actually disappeared, with the exception of Walter, (not in the top 1000 names registered in 2001). The top names with the greatest decline since Victorian times are John, Edwin, Henry, Arthur, Francis, Richard, Albert, William and Frederick. Of the next 156 Victorian names (up to 99% of all registrations) about 45 were Biblical, and few of these are in common use now – Abraham, Eli, Elijah, Job, Moses, Jeremiah, Levi, Aaron, Ephraim, Solomon, Jonas, Isaiah, Abel, Elisha, Noah, and Absalom were the most popular. Jesus does not occur as a forename at any time.
Four of the top 28 names have actually increased in popularity; Harry (5x), (gaining from Henry), Benjamin and Daniel (3x), and Michael (2x). Other remarkable absences from the 2001 list, (with Victorian frequencies given as one occurrence per so many registrations), are Herbert (310), and Ernest (720). 21 names that appeared in the top 100 at least once in the period 1934 – 1974 were absent from the 2001 list; Clive, Donald, Gerald, Gordon, Nigel and Roger appearing in at least 4 of these 5 decades.
Of the names common now, some were unknown in the Victorian period:-
Table 5 – Names in the 2001 top 80 appearing since Victorian times
* One occurrence in x registrations
Jack, the third most common name in 2001, occurred just 4 times in the Victorian sample of 52000 bridegrooms.
Figure 1 illustrates how the popularity of the most frequently occurring men’s names has fluctuated over the last 800 years.
Figure 1 – Popularity of men’s names from the 13th century to 2001
Second names are a useful way of distinguishing between persons. Unfortunately, their use only began in earnest in the 19th century. Until then it was most unusual for children of ordinary parents to receive more than one baptismal name. The variety of second names in use in the Victorian period was about the same as first names, and the same popular first names were used as second names. The use of the mother’s maiden name (or in the case of illegitimate children the father’s surname) was relatively common. My own grandmother and great uncle carried the second name Medwin; their great grandmother was the first to give it to her children in memory of her mother Mary Meade, born 1742 as Mary Medwyn. Such surnames have been excluded from the lists here.
Table 6 – Most popular second names, Victorian period
* as a percentage of all males with second names
A sub-sample of about 5000 bridegrooms (1867–1886) gave 792 (14%) with a second name. Together they shared about 115 different second names. The top 10 represented 67% of all the names in use. Henry and William dominated with 17% and 14%. It was more common to register a second name for a girl (28%) than a boy (14%), although by the end of the century the difference was much less marked. As far as the current situation is concerned I believe that it is only a minority of registrations that feature just one forename, if the situation in Scotland is representative, where in 1975 72% of males had 2 or more forenames, rising in 2000 to 83%.
Length and endings of names
There has been a small decrease from 5.9 to 5.7 in the number of letters in male names between the Victorian period and 2001. Only 2% of names in 2001 had 9 or 10 letters, the longest being Christopher. Nearly 30% of the names ended with “n”, 26% with a vowel and nearly half ended with a consonant.
Donald Hatch 18 July 2002
13th century – an analysis by Carroll-Clark (1997) of 4001 men’s names from the Essex Feet of Fines, (land transactions 1182 – 1272).
17th century - period circa 1600 – 1720. Baptisms in parish registers of Beaconsfield (1675 – 1723), Whaddon (1586 – 1643 and 1671 – 1704), and Little Woolstone (1597 – 1720), all Bucks. Total sample 1682.
Late 18th century - period circa 1770 – 1812. Baptisms in parish registers of Beaconsfield (1778–1812) and Little Woolstone (1770 – 1813). Total sample 664.
Data for Victorian period:
20th century data – Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ranking of the FreeBMD sample for 1898 is confirmed by the very close agreement with the ONS rankings for 1899.
2001 - ONS data for the ±1000 most frequent male forenames. The data has been adapted to deal with homonyms, diminutives and transcription errors (which reduced the number of names from 1037 to 741). Because of lack of data from ONS assumptions have been made concerning the number of persons with names not featured in the first 1000, and for the frequency distribution of the names ranked 101 to 1037. The first 100 names, for which exact data is available, accounted for 68% of all male births, before correction, in 2001.
[This is a fuller version of an article by Donald Hatch, Bilthoven, Netherlands. that appeared in Family History Monthly Dec 2002.]