Not long ago, Nigel Smith discovered he was an endangered species. Smith had always known that his first name wasn’t the height of fashion. Still, it came as a blow to learn that in a recent year the UK’s Office for National Statistics hadn’t recorded a single newborn Nigel. Zip, zero, nil. Smith absorbed the news and responded in a time-honored way: with a night at the pub.
Smith, the proprietor of the Fleece Inn in Worcestershire, England, decided to hold a “Nigel Night.” He put out the word to fellow Nigels near and far to come celebrate their dying breed. Last month, 432 of them made the pilgrimage. Each was given a name tag reading simply “Nigel,” while their guests’ tags said “Not Nigel.” Smith and his fellows hope that the festivities breathed a little new life into the name Nigel. But the tide they’re fighting is much bigger than a single name.
Nigel is arguably the most English-sounding of all baby names. Not, it must be admitted, in a cool way. A BBC America article once called Nigel “the most drearily English name it’s possible to imagine.” Even Nigel Smith himself told the Guardian, “People would say to me when I was young: ‘Nigel, that’s got to be a joke name hasn’t it?'” But it fairly oozes Englishness, and that very quality is quietly disappearing from England’s baby names.
In the Baby Name Wizard book I have an “English” style category that tries to capture that quality from the perspective of the other side of the pond. As I explain in the book, “This is not the England of geographical reality, it is the England of our imagination.” Imaginary baby-name England is defined by literature, by history, by stereotype, and critically, by what Americans don’t name their children. Some of the “English” names are obviously more romantic fancy than fact. It’s not a big surprise that no real English boys were named Eustace, Algernon, Torquil or St. John (“Sinjin”) last year, and only a handful named Tristram, Jolyon, Peregrine and Auberon. Other ultra-English names used to be more common, though, and those are increasingly slipping from reality into dreams.
The total number of boys in England and Wales named Nigel, Clive, Piers, Basil, Crispin, Cyril, Trevor, Roderick, Giles and Neville last year was 69. Even combined, those ten names wouldn’t crack England’s top-500 boys’ names list. The name Cassius alone was twice as popular as all of them put together. And here’s the kicker: most of those ultra-English names are now more popular in the US than in England. An American baby was three times as likely to be named Nigel last year than an English baby, five times as likely to be Clive, nine times as likely to be Trevor.
The news isn’t all dire for Anglophile namers. Rupert is still going strong, and names that contract to cute diminutive nicknames like Reginald (Reggie) Barnaby (Barney) and even Percival (Percy) are holding their own. The outlook is even brighter on the girls’ side. While Lettice, Euphemia, Venetia and Honoria may be pipe dreams, you’ll find plenty of girls named Imogen, Arabella, Felicity and Beatrix, with Georgina, Emmeline, Philippa and Henrietta also in circulation.
But there’s no getting around the fact that more English boys were named JohnBoy than St. John last year. The next time Nigel Smith holds an endangered name party, he might want to expand the guest list.
With special thanks to Frank David