The origins of 10 British baby names


Traditional British names are more popular than ever, according to the latest survey released this week. Celebs may love dreaming up outlandish monikers for their offspring (we’re looking at you, Jamie Oliver), but most of us prefer good old fashioned names like Harry, Sophie, Jack and Lily.  But are these as British as we think? We checked out the most the top five most popular boys and girl’s names of 2010 to find out… you’ll be surprised.

The top five boys

1) The name: Oliver

Where’s it from? Our version derives from the French ‘Olivier’, which probably arrived in England during the Norman Conquest. Going further back into the mists of time it may have originated from the Scandinavian ‘Oleifr’.

What does it mean? If Oleifr’ is the genesis then: ‘The Ancestor Remains’ or ‘Ancestor’s relic’ - which sounds a bit gloomy to us.

Famous Olivers: Twist; Cromwell; Reed

2) The name: Jack

Where’s it from? There’s some confusion here. One school of thought is that it’s good Old English: a pet form of John derived from ‘Jankin’. Others reckon it evolved from Jacques, the French variant of Jacob. Either way, both are Hebrew and found in the Old Testament.

What does it mean? Jankin is literally ‘little Jan/john’.  Jacob is more interesting: Hebrew for ‘supplanter’ - it’s the name of one of Isaac’s sons in the bible. An evil twin who tricked his blind dad into blessing him, Jacob also fathered Joseph – of ‘Technicolour Dream Coat’ fame.

Famous Jacks: The Ripper; The Lad; Frost;

[See also: The top baby names of 2010 revealed]

3) The name: Harry

Where’s it from? A pet form of Henry, which became popular during the Middle Ages (It was Henry V’s nickname - according to Shakespeare anyway). Henry itself is derived from the old Germanic word ‘Haimric’ and was bought here by the Normans (them again).

What does it mean? ‘Haim’ means ‘home’ and ‘ric’ means ‘power’ or ‘ruler’ – so literally, er, ‘home ruler’.  Probably why so many kings liked it.

Famous Harrys: Truman; Potter; Windsor

4) The name: Alfie

Where’s it from? A variant on old school favourite Alfred, which also spawned ‘Fred’.  Amazingly, this is actually English, and comes from the early medieval name Aelfraed. A Dark Age classic.

What does it mean? ‘One who is councilled by elves’ (Aelf is ‘elf’, and raed ‘council’) or simply ‘magical councilor’. We haven’t been reading too much Tolkien; this would have made sense in the superstitious world of 9th century England, apparently.

Famous Alfies: Moon 

5) The name: Charlie

Where’s it from? Charles and pet name Charlie derive from an Old Norse word ‘Karl’ – which became Churl in old English. Charles is a French version made famous by ass kicking king Charlemagne (‘Charles the Great’) and our very own Charles I, who was so rubbish his subjects executed him.
What does it mean? The original Scandinavian version simply means ‘man’. When it came over to England it came to denote ‘free man’ – a chap (probably with a flagon of mead) who was not a peasant, but not nobility either. Think an old English equivalent of a Waitrose customer.

Famous Charlies: Bucket; Sheen; Chaplin

The top five girls

1) The name: Olivia

Where’s it from? Apparently the current spelling was first dreamt up by Shakespeare, who used it in Twelfth Night. There’s some debate amongst baby boffins though over where he lifted it from, though/ Option a) is a female version of Oliver, while option b) is a variant on the Latin Oliva.

What does it mean? If it’s the latter, then it’s just ‘Olive’ or ‘Olive branch’.

Famous Olivias: Newton-John, Wilde

2) The name: Sophie

Where’s it from? It’s a French version of Sophia, a Coptic Greek name. May have become popular because of orthodox Christian saint ‘Sophia the Martyr’, who tragically saw her daughters ‘Faith, Hope and ‘Love’ killed by the Romans. 

What does it mean? The original Greek word means ‘wisdom’. Anyone who watched Sophie Dahl’s cookery show will know this is appropriate.

Famous Sophies: Choice; Elis-Bextor;

3) The name: Emily

Where’s it from? Another name that begun life in Roman times; probably as a derivative of Aemilia. Experts reckon this could be the feminine form of Aemilius – the surname of one of Ancient Rome’s poshest families.

What does it mean? No one’s quite sure, but many think the Aemilius took their name from the Latin word ‘aemulus’ –which means ‘trying to excel’ – or just ‘rival’.

Famous Emilys:
Bronte; Blunt; Watson

4) The name:

Where’s it from? Obviously it’s derived from the flower, and like most things botanical, lilies have a fancy Latin name – in this case Lilium. Famous Swedish plant botherer Carl Linnaeus coined the term in his epic natural classification tome Systema Naturae. A cracking bedtime read. ‘Lily’ is the English version, and became popular in the 19th century.

What does it mean? Lilies traditionally symbolize purity and perfection, but also death – as they’re popular at funerals.

Famous Lilys:
Allen; Munster

5) The name: Amelia

Where’s it from? For you clever clogs who thought it was a variant of Emily; you’re wrong. It’s actually another name that hails from darkest Old Germany. It really took off over here during the mid-18th century, after the Henry Fielding novel ‘Amelia’ came out.

What does it mean? The original German word means ‘hard-working’, but the name denotes industriousness and fertility.

Famous Amelias: Earhart (the pilot)

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