If I couldn’t be Fanny, why not Sophonisba?

Independent on Sunday, 6 April 2014

Traditional British first names are dying out, but what’s interesting is the list of those at risk of extinction

It’s enough to give your average Ukip member a heart attack: traditional British first names are becoming extinct, according to a new study, which shows that some of the most popular names from a century ago are in danger of dying out. Girls’ names are more likely to disappear than boys’, apparently; they’re more at the whim of fashion, whereas quite a few families still think it’s important to keep the same names in the male line. Bloody patriarchy gets everywhere, I say.

Actually, what’s interesting is the list of names at risk of extinction. Horace, Hilda and Doris were among the most popular names in 1905 but, while they may be traditional, their origins are not very British at all. The first is Roman while Hilda is German and Doris is Greek, although I don’t think my auntie of that name was remotely connected to the Dorians, one of the tribes that inhabited Ancient Greece. I’m sure she didn’t have a clue that her name meant “Dorian woman”.

Other names that are no longer in fashion, according to Ancestry.co.uk, are Cecil, Norman and Edna – Roman, Anglo-German and Hebrew respectively. Names say a great deal about patterns of travel and immigration, and the influence of Viking and Norman incursions on “British” names is obvious. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the popularity of a classical education in English public schools was reflected in the number of upper-class children with Greek and Roman first names. Personally, I’ve always hankered after Sophonisba, a Latinisation of the name of a Carthaginian princess.

Joan was not a common first name by the time I was born, although it had been popular in the 1920s and 1930s. My parents’ explanation – that they were expecting a boy and intended to call him Ian – has always baffled me. If Sophonisba was out of the question, I wouldn’t have minded Fanny – now virtually extinct, sadly – after one of my great-grandmothers. Her mother had an extraordinary first name, Deinas or Dinas, which I’ve never encountered anywhere else. The advantages of Joan, as far as I can see, are that there aren’t many of us (unlike Smith) and it’s impossible to shorten. No one has ever called me Jo, except by mistake, although I’ve had to see off a few attempts at Joanie.

Research suggests that shortened forms of first names are very popular, with Lexi replacing Alexandra and Sophie pushing out Sophia. We’re more informal these days and I’d like to think this reflects a deliberate blurring of class distinctions. But then I look at the top 10 girls’ names in 2012, compiled by the Office for National Statistics, and it’s like being slapped with a wet fish: no fewer than seven end with the letter “a”.

OK, I didn’t expect to find any Samiras yet. But there isn’t a single working-class name among all those little Amelias, Olivias and Jessicas.

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