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The Abandoned Classic Girl’s Name

December 5, 2019 laurawattenberg 10 Comments

The Abandoned Classic Girl’s Name

December 5, 2019 LauraWattenberg 10 Comments
Photo of two women talking, heads together
Anne and Ann of Gentleman Jack (image: HBO.com)

If you tuned in to the recent historical tv drama Gentleman Jack, you quickly found yourself awash in Anns. The series is based on the real life of Anne Lister, an Englishwoman of the early 19th Century sometimes called “the first modern lesbian.” We meet Anne Lister as she returns home to live with her aunt, also Anne Lister. Anne then begins an extended courtship of a neighbor, Ann Walker. At one point, one of Anne’s ex-lovers introduces Anne to her newborn daughter whom she has named Anne—telling her husband the name is after his mother Anne, but we know better.

In a fictional series, this wouldn’t be permitted to happen. A romance between an Anne and an Ann? Too confusing. What’s more, in modern life this wouldn’t happen either. Not with any name, but most particularly not Anne.

Anne Lister was from Yorkshire, born in 1791. In that period, such a concentration of Annes would have been commonplace. Ann/Anne was one of the bedrock classic names, and the ten most common names accounted for over 80% of Yorkshire girls. Last year, the top 10 names in Yorkshire last year covered just 9% of all girls. Even the hottest local name hits will never experience anything like the flood we see in Gentleman Jack. And as for Anne itself, forget about it it.

In all of England and Wales, only 30 Annes and 18 Anns were born last year. That leaves both names outside of the top 1000 in popularity, Anne tied with names like Bluebell and Blessing, Ann with non-standard spelling names like Zaara and Neveah. (Read that last one carefully.) The story is the same all over the world. While all of the core English classic names are in deep decline, none has fallen into such deep obscurity as Anne. In New Zealand, it’s been almost half a century since Ann or Anne ranked among the top 100 names. In the United States, you can see the names’ usage nosedive in the 1970s-80s, then flatline:

Graph showing declining popularity of Anne & Anne over time

Nor does Ann still enjoy stealth popularity as a middle name, like other one-syllable classics. Parents shy away from echoes of the mid-20th century wave of MaryAnns, Barbara Anns and Joannes. But rather than simply vanishing, Ann has been transformed. Multisyllabic forms and derivatives of the name have picked up the slack. Names like Anna, Hannah and Annie, and recently extensions like Annabelle and Annalise, are now the face of Ann.

Graph showing resurgence of popularity of multisyllabic "Ann" names in the past generation

That pattern suggests that the plainness of Ann is the culprit. Parents simply find it too ordinary, and ordinary is the last thing 21st-century baby namers are looking for. Yet when everyone is aiming to stand out, ordinariness itself can become extraordinary. More than a dozen Annas and Hannahs are now born for every Anne and Ann. That leaves Anne on the cusp of becoming the kind of name so many people say they’re looking for—and something the Annes of Anne Lister’s time could scarcely have imagined: a classic that will surprise everyone who hears it.

LauraWattenberg
LauraWattenberg

Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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10 Comments

  • Evie
    Evie December 5, 2019 at 3:09 am

    I think part of what makes Anne/Ann sound so plain to modern ears is the letters themselves—A and N are two of the most frequently occurring letters in English (A is #3 after E and T, N is #6 but the #2 consonant). There aren’t many lower-Scrabble-value name than Ann. (Io?) And it’s so very close to that meek little indefinite article, “an.”

    Jane is an interesting comparison, because it’s also one syllable, was extremely popular in historical eras as well, has a similar 20th-century trajectory to Anne and is strongly associated with the word “plain,” but is now having a modest recovery. Is it really just that J at the beginning that spiffs it up?

    (Also relevant: the actress who plays Anne Lister, Suranne Jones, has an interesting little naming story—check out her Wikipedia page).

  • Ann fan December 5, 2019 at 9:05 am

    I used to consider Ann unimaginably plain, but suddenly I find it quite appealing – its smallness and plainness seem quite radical. The Ann spelling also seems a little lighter and jauntier than Anne (which means I must have broken faith with Anne of Green Gables).

  • Amy3 December 5, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    I **love** Ann. It’s spareness is what makes it so amazing to me. Just what you need and nothing more. Perfect!

    • Amy3 December 5, 2019 at 2:47 pm

      *Its – sorry!

  • Elizabeth December 5, 2019 at 9:34 pm

    My young niece is an Anne and I find it charming.

  • beckettfitz December 11, 2019 at 3:56 am

    I know a woman who has 3 daughters who all share the middle name “Anne”. All 3 duaghters are in their early to mid-forties.

  • Jamie December 11, 2019 at 4:24 pm

    I live in York, and there’s a plaque about Anne Lister and Ann Walker. I always wondered how they handled having the same name. I didn’t know about the little namesake Anne too!

  • nedibes
    nedibes December 11, 2019 at 8:04 pm

    I currently have two advisees named Ann/e, a college senior with the -e and a first year without. The younger student adopted Ann over her given name—I think maybe it’s her middle name?—so possibly it will come back into fashion when the Gen-Z generation starts to have babies (whenever/if ever that is).

  • Nicwoo December 13, 2019 at 4:56 am

    I think Ann could come around on its own again because it’s going to sound fresh. One way it could happen is that I think if we have a few companies that have a trim sound, these names that are short in properties will be pleasing and practiced. Like Alexa for example, is eventually not going to sound like it belongs to a face… but Ann sounds like the human antidote because of its harkening back classically. I use the example of company influence because there really are so many names that are words/things/brands now more than ever and the naming population base is a powerful consumer one as well.

  • Nicwoo December 13, 2019 at 5:08 am

    PS. I also think it is worth mentioning that the staying power of Ann is also what may hold it back: it sounds like it’s a prefix or suffix (otherwise incomplete as a stand alone) which accounts for its use in more recent decades.

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