The ultimate parenting headache? Trying to avoid giving your baby a common name

Noah Schnapp and Lily James are trendsetters in the maternity ward - Pierre Suu/GC Images | Karwai Tang/WireImage
Noah Schnapp and Lily James are trendsetters in the maternity ward - Pierre Suu/GC Images | Karwai Tang/WireImage

Naming a baby is the most stressful thing a new parent has to do. Sorry, I ought to clarify that. Naming a baby is one of the more stressful things a new father can help with. But it can be fraught. You are already coming to terms with the realisation that your identity will be forever subordinated to your new genetic brand ambassador.

Naturally, you want everyone to think your child is interesting, sophisticated, intelligent and chic, so the name must reflect these qualities. Perhaps with a subtle nod to your family, but not in a “Hank P. Arkansas IV” kind of way. Original, but not in a Hieronymus kind of way. Easy to spell. It is a lot to ask of a few letters of the alphabet.

My wife (Lara) and I (Ed) thought we had it sussed when, on the cusp of the first lockdown, we named our daughter Lily. Like every parent in north London, riven with class anxiety, we hoped to have threaded the needle. Here was a name that was pretty but unpretentious. Comfortably middle class but not aristocratic. Easy to say and spell. Cumming can be a tricky surname to navigate, for reasons we needn’t go into in The Telegraph, but Lily didn’t add extra problems on that front. We sat back and waited for our friends to congratulate us on our choice.

Imagine our horror when we opened the pages of the newspaper later that year to discover that Lily and Freya (also on our list) had entered the top 10 girls’ names, replacing Ella (not on the list, too common) and Emily (ditto). It was a chastening lesson. We thought we were having an original response to the unique stimuli affecting our decision. Instead, we were in harness to the same cultural forces as thousands of other parents. It was as if we had spent days planning an outfit, only to arrive at the party and find everyone else wearing the same thing. You might call it the Zara (too Spanish) Effect.

This week’s revelation was that among boys there has been a flood of Noahs, a name which jumped three places and now floats atop the sea of names. To paraphrase Martin (too Money Saving Expert) Luther (too detective) King (too cool for Islington) Jr (too American), the ark of history is long, but it bends towards Noah. Olivia retained its position as top girls’ name for a sixth year. There is a fashion for boys to be named like doomed privates at Ypres: Wilf, Alfred, Arthur. In this regard, at least, Boris Johnson displayed the common touch.

Generally speaking names are becoming more diverse, partly as a result of greater diversity. The various riffs on Mohammed are here to stay. It is hard to see John and Margaret ever topping the charts again, as they did for decades from the 1920s to the 1950s. Still, some rules endure. In the same way nobody got fired for buying IBM stock, nobody got laughed out of a playground for sticking to the name of an English king or queen. Or rather, a king or queen since the Norman conquest: Edward, James, Elizabeth, Mary, Charlotte. (Ironically Norman, my father’s name, is on the way out, and there is a risk the sun may be setting on Nigel and Clifford too.) But there remains a sad lack of Aethelberhts and Aelstans.

Pop culture names are guaranteed to enjoy brief phases in the sun. Luca has surged, perhaps inspired by Pixar’s film, and Lando had a moment after Star Wars. There were reports that Game of Thrones fans who had named their daughters Daenerys were disappointed when their character turned out not to be a beacon of queenly virtue. A chastening lesson to other parents thinking of naming their child after the early stages of a TV series about dragons and ice-zombies.

Our second child is due later this month. We don’t know which variety we’re having and we haven’t decided on a name. We still couldn’t bring ourselves to choose something from the top 10 list, but I am resigned to the fact that whatever we choose will pop up in the common names list next year.

There are only two ways for the aspirational middle-class parent to truly rebel on the birth certificate. One is to reach to your parents’ rather than grandparents’ generation for inspiration. You can hardly move in Stoke Newington without bumping into Edith or Elsie or Felixes, but what about Karen or Linda or Carol or Tim or Clive?

The other strategy is to ditch any class pretensions. Might we welcome a little Gary or Tracey Cumming? It seems unlikely. If there’s one thing the birth announcements tell us, it’s that free will is an illusion.