I’ve been banging the drum for many years about the importance of maternal age, in baby name style and far beyond. Most of my name conclusions had to be inferred from community-wide differences in age and naming. Direct data about the ages of parents choosing particular names simply wasn’t available. But thanks to the the UK Office of National Statistics, we now have our first direct glimpse.
The ONS has reported top-100 lists for boys and girls, broken down into four categories of maternal age. If you just glance at the top of their four age-based lists, the most popular handful of names, you might get an impression of consensus. Names like Oliver, Olivia and Amelia rank highly across all ages, which is how they became the top names in the country overall. But you don’t have to scan down far to find dramatic differences.
I’ve calculated the names that skew the oldest and youngest in England, as a ratio of the ranks among mothers aged 35+ vs. mothers under 25. Take a look at the two resulting baby name lists. How do they strike you?
My guess is that any native English speaker will find them dramatically different. The overarching difference that leaps out is that the “Older” names are more traditional. That comes across subjectively in choices like Edith and Martha vs. Paisley and Nevaeh, and it’s easily verified statistically. For instance, half of the Older names ranked among the top 100 in England back in 1904. Among the Younger names only a single name, Nellie, made the 1904 list.
The traditional impression is reinforced by the greater formality of the Older list, which includes few nicknames and no cute diminutives. Meanwhile a third of the Younger list is composed of diminutives like Vinnie and Tommy. (Close watchers of the British royal family will doubtless note that Archie appears on the Younger list, George and Charlotte on the Older.)
The deeper you look, the further apart the two sets of names seem. The Younger names are much heavier on surname crossovers, hyphenations and neologisms. Every single boy’s name on the Younger list is exactly two syllables, while the Older boys’ list is a mix of 1, 2, 3 and 4 syllable names.
Interestingly, the Older list is far more international in style. Names like Amelie, Margot, Charlotte, Chloe and Sophie give the girls’ list a French flavor, and the boys’ list is studded with multilinguistic favorites. For instance, Alexander, Felix and Maximilian are also 3 of the top 6 names in Austria. The Younger names are more specifically English, in both the linguistic and national senses of the word. Names like Alfie and Ava-Rose are seldom heard anywhere else. In fact, by some measures the Older mothers’ choices look more like parents in New Zealand, or even Belgium, than like younger mums in their own land.
Some of these differences are specific to British name style, but the overall gulf is global. It’s more than just a different fashion sense. It’s a different worldview, a different sense of what a name should be, even a different sense of how a name positions a child in relation to the past and present, near and far.
Maternal age isn’t a random variable. It’s closely linked to education and income. Having a baby at age 18 makes it vastly more difficult to pursue higher education and a professional career, and conversely, being on the track to become a doctor or lawyer gives you a powerful incentive to delay starting a family. As the UK stats show, those different life trajectories are encoded forever in parents’ choices of names for their children.