What is in a name?

At the end of last year, the Registrar-General for Scotland published the most popular baby names in Scotland. For the ninth year in a row, Sophie topped the list for girls, and for the sixth year in a row, Jack was the most popular boys’ name. On one hand, the most popular names show a tendency to convention: the Registrar General’s Office note that the top 50 boys names account for 42% of first names for boys registered in 2013, while the top 50 names account for 40% of birth registrations for girls. On the other hand, the popularity of names tend to be historically specific. While most readers can probably think of a cute little Sophie or Jack in their circle of acquaintance, they might be hard pressed to think of little Agnes or Euphemia (popular in 1900), Dennis, Brian or Maureen (popular in 1950); Tracey, Deborah or Gary (popular in 1975).

Euphemia & Guinness?
Euphemia & Guinness?

There are also a far wider range of names used today, and not only because registrars have become more permissive. In 2013, there were over 7 400 unique first names registered, compared to 4800 in 1900. One might speculate that the internet and global culture have widened people’s horizons, just as immigration and international travel have increased the linguistic possibilities. But it is also the case that tradition plays a smaller role today: the old Scottish naming patterns have all but died out. Gone are the days when the first born son would be named after the paternal grandfather, the firstborn daughter after the maternal grandmother and so on. Parents today are far less constrained in their choices, but for the full joy of their creativity, we need to wait for the unabridged list of all 7400 first names to be published in March.

Looking at our own sample from the 1881 census, tradition played a more obvious role in the rural setting, and immigration in the urban setting. In Aberdeenshire, almost three quarters of the men (73%) had William, James, John, Alexander or George as their first given name out of a total of 65 different first names used. In Govan, there was a greater variety of first names used (114) and the top five male names listed in the 1881 census (John, James, William, Robert and Patrick) made up just over half of the sample (51%). The popularity of Patrick in Govan reflects the Irish population in the area at the time. There is also an eight year old boy of Irish parentage apparently called Guinness, which is possibly a tribute to the popularity of the beer of the same name. This Irish stout was increasingly popular in Britain from the late 1860s. In 1875, some 750,000 barrels were exported to Britain rising to 1.2 million barrels by 1886.[1]

In the female sample, there was also a greater variety of first names in the urban setting. 115 different first names were held by women in Govan in 1881 compared to 81 in Aberdeenshire. However, the tendency for a handful of these to make up a large proportion of the sample remained.  In the 1881 Govan census, the most popular five female names (Mary, Margaret, Elizabeth, Jane and Anne) accounted for just under half the female sample (49.8%). In rural Aberdeenshire, the five most popular first names (Margaret, Mary, Jane, Elizabeth and Anne) accounted for a little more than half of female first names (56%). In neither sample is a person named after the reigning monarch, Victoria. In both samples, there are examples of women holding what would be traditionally seen as male names (Erskine, Maxwell) or surnames (Brunton) as first names. There were also more unusual names in the female sample, including Thirza, which is a traditional Hebrew name, and Pheney, a name we could find no meaning or explanation for.

Obviously, the census provides a snapshot of a population across a full range of ages, whereas the published lists from the Registrar-General’s Office highlight trends in naming patterns of babies in any given year. Nonetheless, one might tentatively suggest that this quick analysis shows a fairly static pattern of names in late 19th century Scotland. A few first names accounted for a large proportion of the sample, and while there were a greater variety of given names in the urban setting, the overall number of first names was relatively small. Finally, despite the popularity of Jack and Sophie today, Jack does not feature in either the Govan or the Aberdeenshire sample, and there is only one Sophie. It would therefore be foolhardy to even guess what the most popular first names in a century’s time will be.

[1] Scottish Brewing Archive, University of Glasgow http://www.archives.gla.ac.uk/sba/sbacolls/ags.html