February 15, 2006

Why names will never hurt the social climbers

Posted in People · 4 comments ·
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Looking around at last night’s Valentine couples, gazing into each other’s eyes dreamily above the over-priced creme brule, it’s hard not to be romantic and imagine these relationships continuing, maybe leading to marriage and children.

As we are in the grips of a baby boom, this is highly likely. In the past eight years, the Irish birth rate has gone up by a quarter. This is without precedent in modern Europe.

This year, over 67,000 babies will be delivered in our maternity hospitals.
Just as interesting as the demographic development itself, are the sociological tea-leaves that the new baby boom offers.

Observing the choices made by the parents even in the first few days, provides insights about the type of people these parents believe themselves to be. It also throws light on the sensitive social hierarchy that has emerged in aspirant Ireland in recent years. A logical place to start is with the birth columns.

When did people start thanking the world, his wife and hospital wings?
In many cases, the announcements are less about the precious new arrival than the credentials (and implied cost) of the gynaecologist and his team.

Often, the name of the consultant – with full “Mr” or Professor title – is often as prominent as the new-born. Could this be a first post-natal signal of suburban snobbery where the birth announcement functions as a social signpost to everyone?

Is it about trumpeting the fact that you can afford one of the top maternity professionals in the country? Maybe this is being far too harsh, because obviously many mothers’ gratitude is absolutely genuine, but in today’s modern Ireland, with everyone jockeying for position, it is never too early to mark out your special one.

And what better way than to state publicly that your little one was delivered by the most expensive hands in the business in the most expensive hospital?

But this is only the start, because marking your child out from the crowd happens early and, along with the recent preference for eulogies to gynaecologists, the pattern of names is instructive.

The births and deaths columns of the paper allow us to compare, at a glance, names in the New Ireland with those from old Ireland. Ireland of the death notices has very few names. It is habited by Maureens, Pats, Joans, Marys, Michaels, Johns and Joes.

We had run of the mill names, for run of the mill people. In contrast, birth notices are brimming with Aoifes, Sophies, Amelias, Daniels and Bens.

The more distinct the name the better. In the battle to stand out, names replace possessions. In the past, when we were poor, having possessions meant you were rich and by extension a cut above the rest.

Today, when the country is on a spending splurge and mere possessions are ubiquitous, names take on economic, social and cultural significance. The more unusual the name, the more unusual and therefore, interesting the parent.

What’s the big deal you might ask? Well there is none really until you examine the psychology behind names. It is the first and most public statement that the child’s parents will make about their special one and, as a result, it says a lot about the parents.

Their baby’s name is the first indicator of uniqueness. To have a common name can be an embarrassment. How many times have you seen a young mother wince at the sound of another mum calling out the name of what she thinks is her child only to realise that the name she picked is now common as muck?

She thought when she chose the name it was mellifluous, old-fashioned, quite classy and, most importantly, reasonably unusual. Everyone else had the same idea and there are now Sophies everywhere.

Another way to look at the changes in our society in only one generation, is by comparing the births register in 1979 and 2005. The last 25 years have been tough on John and Mary. In 1979, they were the most popular names by far.

But something has happened. By last year, John had fallen to 22nd while Mary has plummeted to a lowly 45th in the name charts.

Sean and Emma both the 29th most popular names in 1979, have, in a bizarre symmetrical twist, raced, hand in hand, up the charts to poll position. Amongst girls, there has been something of a name revolution between the mothers and daughters.

Not one of the top 10 girls’ names in 1979 remains in the top 10 today.
Where have all the Susans, Anns, Deirdres, Louises, Sharons, Catherines, Carolines, Lisas and Jennifers gone? They have been usurped by a slew of Emmas, Sarahs, Aoifes, Ciaras, Katies, Sophies, Rachels, Chloes, Amys and Leahs.

Some names have had a field day since then. Hats off to Sophie in particular, she has rocked up the charts from a miserable 166th in 1979 to chart topping sixth last year, while poor old Deirdre, Ann and Susan have fallen out of the charts altogether.

Traditional English rose names like Emma, Sophie and Amy are now in vogue, yet so too are old Irish names like Ciara and Aoife. While ironically during a period when the Irish Jewish community has shrunk, Jewish names such as Leah, Sarah and Rachel all make it into the top 10.

Although not so dramatic, the changes in boys’ names have been substantial.
Only David, Michael and James remain clinging on to top 10 positions, while Jack, Adam and Dylan have emerged out of nowhere. Jack and Dylan were not even in the top 100 names in 1979 and Adam was an unimpressive 97th.

In 1979, almost 40pc of all boys were called John, David, Paul, Michael, Mark, Patrick, Brian or Alan.

These were traditional names reflecting a common culture where it would be pretentious to draw attention to the child by calling him something out of the ordinary.

The one name John, accounted for more boys christened in that year than the total of the 42 least popular names put together.

One in 10 of the boys born in 1980 were called John or a papal derivative of it such as John Paul. This was a clear example of the “don’t step out of line” culture.

Boys didn’t have fancy names. How does a name become popular, while another one fall off the radar screen? Evidence from the US explains that “successful” sounding names have a 15-year cycle before they fall away and become common.

The same pattern can be reasonably forecast in Ireland. Interestingly in the US, it has been established that it is not celebrities who dictate names that are on the way up, but the success of one’s neighbours.

But posh names only have a certain shelf-life. As the name becomes too popular, high-end parents soon drop it. The name gets shunted down the social classes and might disappear altogether, while other names will be on the way up.

In Ireland, this shunting process is captured in CSO publications on names every year. Name momentum is essential for trend spotting.

This year, watch Ella, Ellie, Mia and Abby who are zooming up the charts and at this rate should break into the top 10 by 2007. But such is their momentum that they might tip over into naff very soon.

Meanwhile, Rachel and Lauren are going the other way. Shannon and Nicole have clearly been tainted by overuse and are crashing back to earth. For boys, there’s no stopping the Jews.

Biblical Ben, Joshua, Noah and Ethan are showing great promise but will at this rate, will be desperately common by 2010.

Meanwhile, in line with a renewed interest in Gaelscoils, Irish names, especially for boys, are experiencing a renaissance. So the next time someone asks you how Ireland’s changed, forget economics, GDP and growth figures, pick up the paper, do to the births and deaths and check out who’s who.


  1. Noel Rock

    Congratulations for lifting a concept from ‘Freakonomics’,
    putting a semi-Irish spin on it, passing it off as your own
    work and getting paid for it. Hell, some of the sentences
    look like they were taken verbatim from the book: “As the
    name becomes too popular, high-end parents soon drop it.”

    I have to say Dave, I used to be a fan of yours but – lately
    - since the book came out and you’ve (re?)gained mainstream
    success, the quality of your articles and, indeed, your
    ideas, have slipped downhill. Though perhaps this is just me
    being a typical Irish begrudger eh? Indeed, it’s likely :).

    Incidentally, while I’m here, ‘The Big Bite’ was lacking
    sound today – sort it David!

    Nevertheless, despite everything I’ve said previously,
    congratulations with the book, the TV show etc. Two years
    ago, it looked like your media career was effectively ended
    unfairly, but you persevered and bounced back. Well done.

  2. DavidMcWilliams

    Hi Noel, just to put you straight the economic/sociology
    of names has been around a lot longer than Freakonomics –
    all they did was do a few regressions and tested for
    income, which is kind of self-evident. 150 years ago the
    Victorians were very sensitive to name heirarchy. Equally,
    the research I refer to in the article pre-dates
    Freakonomics by some twenty years and was undertaken in
    Israel to explain the dissappearance of biblical names!
    Maybe you should level that criticism as Messers Levitt
    and Dubner. But nonetheless, its a great book and well
    worth reading.

    Sorry you think the standard is slipping, I’d be
    interested to know in what way cause if you are think so,
    then i’ll get the finger out. But Noel, as for the sound
    on the Big Bite – its beyond me.

    Best Regards, David

  3. Billy Waters

    Maybe like the Pinay nurses who staff our hospitals we are
    trying to be distinctive with first names because there are
    is such a small pool of last names. I mean look in the
    phone book. Half the population has the same few almost
    generic surnames.

    There are so many people with the Spanish inflicted last
    names like Lopez, Fernandez etc in the bloated poulation of
    the Philippines they have to make themselves distinct from
    the crowd with the funkiest names you could possibly imagine.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/4609892.stm

    We are more like the people that come here to work than we
    would ever like to believe. A Beatrix Dore-Murphy claiming
    the Nobel prize sounds better in front of the neighbours
    than watching a Bridie Murphy in a granny dress sweaty and
    po faced on winning streak hoping to win a Toyota.

    It doesnt matter what it is actually like its all about what
    it looks like with the ultimate goal of being a bit posher
    than the eejit next door.

  4. donal

    fascinating article on a genuinely interesting subject.
    i had a job once that included reading the obits on the
    local radio station that covered limerick city and county -
    a real insight into the diverse naming practices across
    the urban/rural and class divides.
    a couple of things you might also have addressed are
    recent changes in naming conventions (as oppossed to names
    themselves), for example my eldest brother (b1974) was
    named after our paternal grandfather, i (b1976) after our
    maternal grandfather and both of my two other brothers
    (b1979 & 1985) have long standing ‘family’ names – that
    was certainly in line with custom and practice in farming
    and small business families in the south west till at
    least the current generation. interestingly our only
    sister’s (b1985) name was i believe plucked out of the air
    by my mother on the basis thet she liked it.

    also worth a nod is the practice/habit of giving a child a
    name and and then never using it (related to the above by
    practical strain on numbers)for instance a kid ‘named’
    brigid mary might just as easily be known to family and
    friends as 1. brid, 2. mary – or even some version of 3.
    maire, leading on to the probably inpenetrable but
    undoubtedly sociologicaly important too-ing and fro-ing
    between dermots and diarmuids, jameses and seamuses, dans
    and donals, johns, jacks and shanes, seans eoins etc and
    even liams and williams – with the ‘name’ used now one way
    on birthcerts v home v school, depending on place and
    time, now the other.

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