(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, June 26.)
What would you guess was the most popular name for baby girls in New Zealand last year?
I’ll give you a clue. It goes with Bronte.
Emily? Nope, that was the eighth most popular. The top spot went, for the second year in a row, to Charlotte.
Charlotte Bronte, of course, wrote Jane Eyre, while her younger sister Emily gave us Wuthering Heights. But if the popularity of their names (Emily is consistently in the top 10) is due to the renaissance of the 19th century English novel, you might expect Jane to be in demand as a girl’s name too.
I say this because Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, arguably the book that did most to revive interest in classic English literature. Yet I’ve scanned the lists of popular girls’ names going back to 2000, and Jane is nowhere to be found.
All of which leaves us scratching our heads as to why classical female names such as Charlotte and Emily – not to mention Olivia, Emma and Sophie, all of which have topped the popularity chart in the past 20 years – should hold such contemporary appeal. None of these names would look out of place in a BBC costume drama.
And before you point out that Charlotte was the name chosen by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for their second child, which would explain a surge in its popularity, you should be aware that Charlotte also headed the list in 2006, 2013 and 2014, before Princess Charlotte was born.
Why am I writing about this? Because the constantly shifting public taste in names is an aspect of social behaviour that’s every bit as perplexing and unpredictable as changing trends in fashion.
In my childhood, boys were given names like Peter, Michael, David and John – solid, white-bread names, in line with the conformist, monocultural tone of the times.
Records show that these names remained predominant until the 1970s, when Jason entered the picture. In the 1980s Michael was still consistently popular but vied with Daniel, and in the following decade Matthew arrived on the scene. By the late 90s, Joshua was consistently topping the popularity rankings.
The noughties saw the arrival of Jack, Liam and Oliver. The latter name has been the most popular choice for male babies for the past five years.
Good luck to anyone trying to find a logical pattern here. Daniel, Matthew and Joshua suggest a biblical influence, but given the secular nature of New Zealand society, I suspect that’s entirely coincidental.
On the distaff side, Susan and Karen were the most favoured girls’ names for much of the 1950s and 60s, with competition from Sandra, Christine and Margaret.
Lisa burst on the scene in the late 60s and Sarah ruled through most of the 70s and 80s before being toppled by Jessica, who pretty much owned the 90s. Then along came the Emmas, Charlottes and Sophies.
But the lists of the most popular names don’t tell the full story. Under the surface, other recent trends are apparent.
One is for kids to be given first names that look like surnames: Cooper, Hunter, Carter, Mackenzie, Bailey, Harrison, Riley, Harper.
Another is the revival of female names that were considered unfashionably quaint even in my childhood – for example, Ruby (No. 1 on the popularity chart in 2011), Sadie, Chloe, Phoebe and Hazel.
In previous generations these names might have been considered an indicator of lower social status (remember Sadie the Cleaning Lady?), but they have acquired a retrospective chic among the upwardly mobile classes.
How do these trends originate? My guess is that it starts with someone deciding to be different by choosing a quirky or unconventional name for their baby, only to find that other people start imitating it. Soon, what was intended as distinctive and individualistic ends up being shared by thousands.
As with miniskirts for women and long hair for men in the 60s, what seems edgy and defiant today can be commonplace tomorrow.
Certainly the urge to conform remains potent. While there will always be outliers who buck the norm, in their choice of names as well as other things, most people feel more secure being part of the crowd. There’s safety in numbers.
And when all is said and done, perhaps there’s something to be said for being unimaginative. Because at the opposite end of the social scale from the Charlottes and Olivers there’s a growing preference for strange, made-up names which are typically multi-syllabic, often double-barrelled, and mostly unpronounceable. Some parents seem to give no more thought to the naming of their children than they might to the naming of a cat or dog.
Sadly, these names are likely to burden their bearers throughout life. Research suggests that people with invented names are statistically more likely to die young or end up in jail - not directly because of their names, but because of the social disadvantage those names signify. That's a helluva price to pay for having a unique moniker.