What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet... Popularity of women's names over the centuries
by Donald Hatch
(The use of the name Rose fell from one in 350 in the 13th century to 1 in 500 in 1700, rose again to one in 340 by 1850 but is now just one in 1000).
The great increase in the number of men's names and the fluctuation in their popularity in recent years, and the background to this study, were dealt with in the previous article. We turn now to female forenames in England. The origin of the information for both articles is given under "Sources" in the previous article.
The 13th, 17th and 18th centuries
Based on a sample of 1400 Essex names in the 13th century and somewhat smaller samples from three Buckinghamshire parishes in the 17th and 18th centuries, as few as 10 names accounted for 56% of all baptisms in the 13th century and 70 to 80% in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Table 1 - Most common female names in the 13th, 17th and 18th centuries
* 1407 names from the Essex Feet of Fines
Most of the names listed are in common use today, an exception being Rohesia. There are however a number of less common 13th century names which are now unknown, such as Albreda, Basilia, Celestria, Estrilda, Galiena, Gundreda, Gunilda, Gunnora, Hawisa, Helewisa, Idorea and Wymarc. Of the 94 names occurring more than once in the 13th century sample, more than 30 are now obsolete.
All of the commonest 17th century names are in use today. Of the 75 names in the sample only a few have become obsolete; Lettice, Mathy, Abell, Ealse and Temperance being examples.
Late 18th century
Little had changed by this time in a conservative rural England. As in the 13th and 17th centuries second names were still very rare and the concentration on a few popular names was still very marked. 70% of all males still shared the top 10 names in this small sample of baptisms.
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 large sample of 51500 brides (1867 - 1886) yielded 424 different names, and although the top 10 still accounted for 59% of the total (for the grooms this was 72%), one in a hundred women shared about 250 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, even more so for girls than boys. Although a few names have retained their popularity, such as Hannah and Emma, there is a great deal of fluctuation with names becoming popular over the course of a few years and then declining as fast. The short-lived popularity of certain names, such as Shirley, is clearly linked to celebrities at the time.
Names in 2001
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 other baby girl was registered as Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, Ann or Jane, in 2001 only 1 in 10 belonged to the top 5. The top 10 now only account for 18% of females, and the total number of names in use (with at least 10 registered births in 2001) is nearly 1000.
Table 4 - Most common names given in 2001
In some cases the diminutive has become (much) more popular than the original name. Ellie for example, unknown in the Victorian registrations, was in 2001 nearly 7 times as common as Ellen. There is a much smaller effect than with males from the introduction of non-English names from immigrants, examples of which are Aisha, Alisha, Fatima, Halima, Sumayyah and Aneesha.
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 43 names (90% of all registrations) in the early Victorian period few have actually disappeared, exceptions being Fanny, Betsy and Ada, (not in the top 1000 names registered in 2001). The top names with the greatest decline since Victorian times are Mary, Ann, Jane and Agnes (now 1% of the frequency then) and Eliza and Margaret (3 and 4%). Of the next 128 Victorian names (up to 99% of all registrations) only a few were Biblical, such as Ruth, Leah, Naomi, Keziah, and Hephzibah.
Seven of these top 43 names are actually more common now; Kate/Katie (3x), Rebecca (2.5x), and Eleanor and Lucy (2x). Emily remains similar at about one name in 45 in both periods.
Other remarkable absences from the 2001 list, (with Victorian frequencies given as one occurrence per so many registrations), are Rhoda (599), Priscilla (668), Dorothy (827), Janet (840), Bessie (930) and Barbara (965). No less than 68 names that appeared in the top 100 at least once in the period 1934 - 74 were absent from the 2001 list, the following appearing in at least 4 of these 5 decades; Barbara, Carol, Jill/Gillian, Janet, Lesley, Maureen, Pamela, Pauline, Sheila, Shirley, Valerie and Yvonne.
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
Figure 1 illustrates how the popularity of the most frequently occurring women's names has fluctuated over the last 800 years:
The use of second names only began in earnest in the 19th century. The variety of second names in use in the Victorian period was about the same as first names, and in most cases the same popular first names were used as second names.
Table 6 - Most popular second names, Victorian period
* as a percentage of all females with second names
A sub-sample of about 5000 brides (1867 - 1886) gave 1414 (28%) with a second name. Together they shared about 125 different second names; the top 10 represented 81% of all the names in use. Ann and Jane dominated with 40% and 14%. It was more common to give, or at least 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. In Scotland 64% of females were given 2 or more names in 1975, rising to 75% in 2000.
Length and endings of names
There has been little change in the number of letters in female names between the Victorian period and 2001; 5.6 then and 5.7 now. Only 5% of names were 9 or 10 letters, the longest being Evangeline, Jacqueline and Clementine. Nearly half of the names ended with "a", and a further 20% ended with "e". 13% ended with other vowels including "y", and the remaining 21% ended with a consonant.
- 13th century - an analysis by Carroll-Clark (1997) of 4001/1407 men's/women'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 (men) and 1588 (women).
- Late 18th century - period circa 1770 - 1812. Baptisms in parish registers of Beaconsfield (1778 - 1812) and Little Woolstone (1770 - 1813). Total sample 664/653.
- Data for Victorian period. Samples taken from FreeBMD database of civil registrations of births with surnames Hall, Green, Wright and Jackson, sample sizes 1838 2618/2636, 1853 2555/2423, 1868 2688/2645, 1883 2611/2629 and 1898 2717/2703 (men/women).
- Sample of 51568/52092 forenames of grooms and brides with surnames beginning with the letters Ha marrying 1867 - 1886.
- 20th century data - 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 and female forenames. The data has been adapted to deal with homonyms, diminutives and transcription errors (which reduced the number of names to 741/ 681). 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 1037/1006. The first 100 names, for which exact data is available, accounted for 68/55% of all male/female births, before corrections, in 2001.
Donald Hatch 18 July 2002