Why do baby names go in and out of fashion? We ask an expert

·3-min read

The UK’s top baby names have been revealed, with many historic names such as Theodore, Oscar and Evelyn making a comeback. But why do we pick the same names as our peers? I asked Jane Pilcher, a sociologist specialising in naming.

Whenever I open Instagram there’s a picture of a newborn and a caption like: “Welcome to the world [enter Edwardian-sounding name here].” Why are old-fashioned names all the rage?
Some names seem to stick around for ever in terms of popularity, such as Jack. But, generally, if we don’t know someone with that name, it becomes attractive.

I guess it’s impossible to know what name is rare. Fifteen years ago the only time I’d hear the name Coco was if someone was calling their dog. Now, I see it everywhere.
That’s like getting a particular car in your head then seeing it everywhere. With baby names you’re making your choices under the same sociocultural influences as your peers, because you have babies at a similar time. We think we’re making ourselves different, but everyone else is doing that too. We end up making similar choices.

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That reminds me of being a teenager and arguing with Mum. I’d say: “I’m an individual!” And she’d say: Just like everybody else.” But why do we only choose names that are a few centuries old? I don’t hear anyone naming their kid Beowulf or Galahad.
That depends on your social positioning. I imagine an MP in the 19th century didn’t give his children run-of-the-mill names, and perhaps your social positioning might encourage you to look back and beyond for names like …

Annunziata Rees-Mogg. One in 10 British parents regrets giving their child a name that seemed cool or clever. Is this feeling of being above your station particularly British?
Social class makes a difference to name choices everywhere. Names are about parental identities as much as anything else. I think of it as though there are pots of names that people pull from. The first pull is based on whether it’s a boy or a girl. Then there’s social class and ethnicity, then cultural and social influences.

You mentioned ethnicity – what’s the trend there?
Research in the US suggests that it’s more important for boys to have a name indicating their ethnic heritage, because boys are regarded as the carriers of the family. For example, Muhammad is a top boy’s name in the UK, but there’s not an equivalent top girl’s name indicating south Asian Muslim heritage. Though, in general, the big trend at the moment is gender-neutral names.

I’m fascinated by the name Evelyn. It was used for men and now is predominantly a woman’s name. Same for Laurel.
Studies show that with names like Evelyn or Vivian, if too many girls are given that name, it stops being chosen for boys. We know our societies consider being a girl to be a bad thing, so you get a mass exodus from it as a choice for boys.

Maybe gender-neutral names can help?
The more gender-neutral names become a thing, the less severe the exodus. Really, we’re talking about the fluidity of gender identities, and I’m hopeful that, despite what’s going on in some quarters of the world, that trend is going to continue.