Christopher Smith wonders what’s in a name.


The Office of National Statistics has a little toy on its website called ‘Baby names explorer’.  If you have some time to fritter away, it’s quite interesting to chart the popularity of your name as the years have gone by, assuming that it has at some point been in the ‘top 100’.  The most popular name to give your daughter at the moment is Olivia, and Oliver the most popular to give your son.  Olivia took over from Amelia, both beginning their meteoric rise in the mid-1990s.  When I was a child, all three of those names would have seemed a signifier of tremendous and exotic poshness.  Girls of my generation were generally called things like Sarah and Deborah, Rachel and Karen, Julie and Tracey.  

Not long before my childhood, Margaret had a long run at the top, taking over from Mary.  Elizabeth always came in the top ten, and has only just dropped out of the top 50.  Some of the names of my grandparents’ generation, like Edith and Elsie, dropped out of the table in the 1930s but have come back in, although Maud and Gwendoline have yet to make it back.  Mabel has just sneaked back into the table, though.  The Joans, Patricias, Sheilas and Doreens of my parents’ generation have stayed out of the table, as have May and June, with April never featuring.  June made it into the top 10 in the mid-30s, precisely when my mother was being Christened—probably a fair showing for a name you might imagine was quite date-specific.

My own Christian name goes through a steep rise during the 1930s, then another rise in the ‘60s (in time for me to be given it, because it was one of my father’s names), and touches the top spot in the early ‘80s.  Then it falls away rapidly, and is now out of the top 100 boys’ names altogether.  George does the opposite, having been very popular until the 1930s, then falling away to the mid-’70s, then making a meteoric rise back to the top of the chart more recently, now vying with Oliver for the top spot.  Arthur too fell away, dropping out altogether in the 1950s, but coming back into the table about a decade ago, where it is now in fourth place, just behind Noah.

  Many boys of my generation were given the Christian name Stephen, and that followed a similar trajectory to Christopher, though it peaked earlier and fell away earlier.  You could say the same about Richard, although that had been more consistently popular in the early part of the twentieth century.  John was our most popular boy’s name for many years, but fell away very sharply from about 1990.  Martin comes and goes, Thomas holds its own, and David takes over as John falls away, Paul briefly comes in, and then James, which has always been popular, having been in the top twenty for well over a century and only now beginning to dip.  It’s interesting to note how many of these are discernibly Christian Christian names, although there are some which, like Arlo, I can’t explain, some rather obscure Old Testament names like Ethan, and a small number of obviously Islamic names.

We are now seeing more diminutives given where they would once have been nicknames, like Jack rather than John, or Jake rather than Jacob.  And that brings me to a story that caught my eye last month about the purported renaming of a church in Bournemouth from St Michael’s to (you guessed it!) St Mike’s.  In church reporting, every season is now the silly season, and this attempt at rebranding was always going to lead to a bit of red-top jocularity: ‘Taking the Michael’ was how the Sun headlined the story.  I expect those who think these things up make an assumption that the sort of chumminess they were raised into will work for the people they want to attract now.  ‘Mike’ makes me think of the world of the ’80s DJ, and I can’t really imagine that it will make the church any more attractive to young people than it was before.  But, to be fair to them, the change has brought them some publicity.  Michael, incidentally, was my father’s first Christian name, and I note that, although Michael has remained in the top 100 boys names, it is now at about 70, having been in the top ten for fifty years from the mid-thirties (when dad was given it) to the mid-eighties.

We shall see what happens at ‘St Mike’s’, a Victorian barn of a church with a tiny congregation, as time goes by.  They have been the lucky recipients of a great big grant of Commissioners’ money—a share of £3,190,000 awarded to the Diocese of Winchester for (according to the Church of England website) ‘revamping churches, evangelism to younger generations and creating new congregations’.  They are sharing it with only two other projects, so the investment is pretty huge here, and they have forked out for a website which doesn’t really seem to speak of the worshipping life of the place.  Giles Fraser has ferreted it out too: ‘It has the look of a Benetton advert with ridiculously good-looking 20-somethings in fashionable clothes set in interesting locations. Some of the clergy I know call this sort of thing “imaginary church”.’  He means that the people on the website are almost certainly not part of the congregation, and the ‘interesting’ locations are anywhere but church.

This seems to me to be a little like false advertising, and, in any event, website existence is not church life.  At some point, they presumably want to get people over the threshold of the church building, and offer them a warm welcome and authentic Christian worship.  My father would have hated St Mike’s… but I have a funny feeling that Noah and Amelia aren’t going to like it much either.