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What’s in a name? A brief history of baby name trends from the Anglo-Saxons to today

From biblical names like Noah to those inspired by flowers or cities, personal names in Britain have changed massively over the centuries, reflecting social, economic and cultural shifts. Writer Neil Burdess charts the history of names from the time of the Anglo-Saxons to the present day…

The future King George VI (1895-1952) as a baby, 1895. The name 'George' appears in the list of the top 10 boys' names both today and a century ago. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Published: May 9, 2019 at 12:25 pm
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Anglo-Saxons who refuse to die

Considering that the Anglo-Saxon period ended nearly 1,000 years ago, there are a surprising number of Old English names still in use. Some have been modernised – for example, Ælfræd became Alfred – but the original names are still recognisable. Other Anglo-Saxon male names include Alwin, Chad, Cuthbert, Edgar, Edmund, Edward, Godwin, Harold and Wilfred. Interestingly, Edward, Alfred and Wilfred are still popular. There aren’t as many recognisable female names, but they include Audrey, Edith, Ethel, Hilda and Mildred. Only Edith is a popular name today.


The arrival of the Norman invaders in 1066 had a huge impact on personal names (and everything else). Just before the Norman Conquest, 85 per cent of men’s names were Old English, the favourites being Godwin and Alwin. But 150 years later, only five per cent of names were Old English. By then, the favourite male names were from Normandy, including Albert, Gerald, Henry, Hugh, Leonard, Ralph, Raymond, Richard, Robert, Roger, Walter and William. Today, William, Henry, Albert, Robert and Ralph are all still popular. Women’s names included Matilda, Adelaide, Adela, Gertrude, Ida, Rosalind and Rosamund. Matilda continues to enjoy popularity.

The reasons for these changes from Anglo-Saxon to Norman names are not hard to find. First, King William replaced virtually all the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy with Norman lords. The remaining prominent Anglo-Saxons – those who had not fled or been sold into slavery overseas – attempted to show loyalty to the new king by giving Norman names to their children. Eventually, even the landless peasants copied the social elite and adopted Norman names.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of 1066. The arrival of the Norman invaders had a huge impact on personal names. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Saintly by name, saintly by nature?

The influence of the Roman Catholic Church grew considerably in the 12th and 13th centuries, resulting in the greatly increased use of the names of saints. These included saints who appear in the Bible (e.g. Mary, Elizabeth), and saints who were canonised by the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. Agnes, Margaret). Once established, religious names quickly became popular for both girls and boys. By the mid-1500s, religious names made up about half of all boys’ names, with John and Thomas being the most popular. Among girls the influence of the Catholic Church was even greater, with more than eight out of 10 baptisms using religious names. However, names from the Old Testament were rarely used.

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In the 1530s, Henry VIII separated church affairs in England from the Roman Catholic Church by establishing the Church of England. Not surprisingly, those names most closely associated with Catholicism quickly fell out of favour. These included all the saints who don’t appear in the Bible but who had been canonised by the Roman Catholic Church, including Barbara, Margaret, Martin and Valentine. In fact, even New Testament names became much less popular because of their association with the Catholic Church. Only John and Thomas continued to be popular today.

A portrait of King Henry VIII, c1540. An engraving by T A Dean from a painting by Hans Holbein. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Zechariah, Zipporah!

The establishment of the Church of England coincided with the publication in 1535 of the first modern English translation of both the Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible. The Protestant reform movement stressed the central importance of the Bible, and the new English translations meant that many more people could read the Bible themselves. In turn, it also meant that they had access to the large stock of names from the Old Testament – from Aaron to Zechariah, and Abigail to Zipporah. These names had the added attraction that they were much less associated with Catholicism than many New Testament names. As a result, Old Testament names became much more common during the late-16th century and 17th century, especially among girls. But Old Testament boys’ names struggled to make any dent in the popularity of more traditional names, with the top five places monopolised by John, Thomas, William, Richard and Robert.

Although not quite as popular today, nevertheless two of these names, William and Thomas, are still ranked in the top 20 boys’ names – though they are now outnumbered in that group by four Old Testament names: Jacob, Noah, Joshua and Isaac. Interestingly, there are no biblical names in the top 50 girls’ names.

A woodcut from the Nuremberg Bible of Noah's Ark depicting the ship built by Noah to save himself, his family and a pair of each species of animal and bird from the Flood (Old Testament, Genesis 6-8), c1493. Victoria & Albert Museum. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A second large group of given names include those based on traditional names. These include ‘short forms’ or ‘pet names’, such as Tom for Thomas, Dick for Richard and Harry for Henry. Some short forms have been around almost as long as the full names. For example, the native Anglo-Saxons had trouble getting their tongues around the Norman pronunciation of Richard, and so the name Dick was born.

Often, the original aim of the short form was to give people more scope to identify exactly whom they were talking about at a time when the number of given names was limited and the use of family names was not in general use. As a result, many traditional names have several long-established short forms. For example, as well as Dick, long-established short forms of Richard include Dicky, Rick, Ricky, Rich and Richie. Today, the pet names Jack, Harry, Alfie, Freddie and Archie are all in the top 20 boys’ names; and Evie (the pet form of Eve or Evelyn) is a top 20 girls’ name.

Have you met my daughter Richard?

In the Middle Ages, women often had what we now regard as men’s names, in part because of the relatively small number of female saints. So, in the mid-1500s Richard was in the top 50 baptismal names for both boys and girls. Other names commonly used for both boys and girls included Philip, Nicholas, Alexander, James, Gilbert, Aubrey, Reynold, Basil, Eustace, Giles, Edmund and Simon. However, when the Church authorities recorded names they did so in Latin and, following the rules of Latin grammar, wrote the name with a feminine ending. So, Philip became Philippa, Nicholas became Nicholaa, and Alexander became Alexandra. However, it wasn’t until much later that these written forms became regular girls’ names.

Finally, there are now hundreds of given names that originally were family names – from Allan to Zane – with the majority traditionally used as boys’ names. The practice began around the time of Shakespeare in the late 1500s among peers of the realm. In most cases, the child’s mother was an heiress to her father’s estate, and the use of her family name as the child’s given name helped ensure that the inheritance was not lost.

Like many social customs, it was not long before using family names as given names was taken up more widely: “Surnames of honourable and worshipfull families are given now to mean [ie poor] men’s children for Christian names” is how William Camden bluntly described it in 1605. For example, the given name Percy was taken from the Percy family, whose sons have been earls of Northumberland since the 14th century. Today, transferred surnames are popular boys’ given names. Logan, Mason, Harrison, Finlay, Jenson and Harvey are all top 50 names.

I christen you Fear-God and Praise-God

In the 16th century, Puritans wanted names that would distinguish their children from what they saw as the godless masses, and would remind their children of their duty to God. So, they began to coin virtue names such as Grace, Faith, Hope, Charity, Patience, Mercy and Joy. Some parents went further still and gave their children slogan names, such as John Barebone who named his two sons Fear-God and Praise-God because the Church of England Prayer Book directed married couples to bring up their children “in the fear… and praise of God”. Not surprisingly, the fashion for slogan names didn’t last long, but a few virtue names are still quite popular for girls, such as Grace and Faith.

Generally, however, until the 19th century, naming practices continued as they had done for hundreds of years, with the same names being handed down from generation to generation. In the late 1700s, the names William, John and Thomas accounted for over half of all male baptisms; and Elizabeth, Mary and Anne accounted for over half of all female baptisms. However, in the 19th century, name-giving became much more fluid, with certain names enjoying popularity for only a limited time.

Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson believes that the explanation for this change lies in the Industrial Revolution. The revolution brought about a massive increase in the proportion of the population living in cities as people in the countryside flocked to them for work. This weakened the traditional influence of the extended family, and therefore the position of honour traditionally held by older people. As a result, given names associated with the elderly became less attractive to new parents. The Industrial Revolution also sped up the spread of literacy, and through their reading people came across a much wider variety of names – Dickens alone created 1,000 named characters.

19th-century engraving of the interior of an English factory during the Industrial Revolution. (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)
19th-century engraving of the interior of an English factory during the Industrial Revolution. (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

A child’s garden of names?

So, Victorian parents began to choose new names for their children. For example, botanical names became very popular for girls, such as Daisy, Hazel, Holly, Ivy, Lily, Marigold, Poppy, Rose – and a bunch of others (pardon the pun). As with many fashions, the very popularity of botanical names eventually sowed the seeds of their downfall. However, recently the popularity of several botanical names has soared, as they have been re-discovered by a new generation of parents who see the names as fresh, modern and fashionable. There are no fewer than 12 botanical names in the current top 100 girls’ names, with Poppy, Lily and Daisy all in the top 20.

Also in the 1800s, parents began to give their children names that commemorated a significant place. For example, Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) was named after the city of her birth, and Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) was named after Rudyard Lake where his parents went courting. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, published in the 1850s, includes Mr and Mrs Bagnet, whose children were named Quebec, Malta and Woolwich, from the military bases where Mr Bagnet had worked.

These days, baby name books often include a “place name” list. But because of the huge range of possibilities, individual geographical names rarely become very popular. However, one clear exception today is Isla, which comes from the Scottish island of Islay. It wasn’t in the top 100 a decade ago, but is currently the fourth most popular girls’ name.

Florence Nightingale was named after the city of her birth. (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images)
Florence Nightingale was named after the city of her birth. (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images)

I just want to be Unique…

Undoubtedly a major inspiration for given names in the past few decades is the desire by many parents to make their children stand out in a crowd by giving them an unusual, rare or even unique name. This is part of a much larger process of individualisation. That is, over the past half-century the development of a consumer culture has led to an ever-increasing choice of goods and services. The message from advertisers is that we choose what sort of person we want to be by careful selection of what’s on offer. It’s no coincidence, then, that the increase in the number of registered names for babies matches the increase in the number of registered names for biscuits and breakfast cereals. In Britain in 2015, of the 60,000 different registered names, 50,000 were given to only one or two children. But it’s not easy coming up with a ‘new’ name – ask the two dozen British parents who in the past decade named their daughter Unique… only to find that she wasn’t unique after all.

Individualisation applies particularly to girls’ names because parents have tended to be more adventurous when naming girls. As far back as 1281 the Archbishop of Canterbury warned priests against “frivolous” names, especially when baptising girls. You still see this pattern when you compare the top 10 names today and a century ago. Among boys, for example, the traditional names William, Thomas and George are in both lists. And there are also two pet names in today’s list that appeared in traditional form in the top 10 names a century ago: Charlie and Charles; and Jack and John (the most popular name 100 years ago). In other words, half of today’s most popular boys’ names were also popular a century ago.

In contrast, none of today’s top 10 girls’ names were as popular a century ago. In fact, only three of them were in even the top 100 girls’ names.

A few predictions

As the previous paragraph suggests, boys’ names are easier to predict, with traditional names continuing their dominance. After decades in the top 10 (much of the time at number one) the name John has suffered a half-century of decline, so that today it is not even in the top 100. Yet it’s possible that it could start rising once again. Rather less mainstream are the names Wilfred and Benedict, both of which seem to be popular among parents who announce the birth of their children in The Times. The history of name-giving is full of examples of names that have trickled down from the social elite to the general public, and these two long-established names are likely to become more generally popular.

Predicting popular girls’ names is much less certain. Using the trickle-down idea, it’s possible that Arabella and Elodie will continue to rise. Time will tell…

Neil Burdess is the author of Hello, My Name Is… published by Sandstone Press.


This article was first published by History Extra in October 2017.


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