The hidden meanings behind the nation’s most popular baby names

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Moya Crockett
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Even if you’re not planning on having a child anytime soon (or, indeed, ever), it’s hard not to be oddly fascinated by baby names. Every September, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in England and Wales releases its lists of the previous year’s most popular baby names, and they offer a strangely compelling insight into the mood and influences of the nation’s new parents.

The rankings for 2016 have just been published, and – following a trend of several years – overtly feminine, vowel-heavy names ending with ‘a’ are dominant in the girls’ top 10. The male rankings are more diverse in terms of sound, but less so in origin, with traditional English and Biblical names appearing most often.

Here, we’ve broken down the top 10 most popular girls’ and boys’ names in England and Wales, along with information on their history and meanings.

The 10 most popular girls’ names in England and Wales

10. Mia - given to 2,662 baby girls in 2016

Mia has been floating around the top 20 baby girl names in the UK for most of the 21st century. Meaning ‘mine’ in Italian, it actually has its origins in Scandinavian countries, where it has long been used as a nickname for girls and women named Maria (meaning ‘wished-for child’). The most famous Mia is activist, actress and Sixties style icon Mia Farrow – although it also calls to mind Mia Thermopolis from the Princess Diaries book and film series. 

9. Ella - given to 2,702 baby girls 

Ella has roots in both Germany and England. In German, it means ‘all’, ‘other’, or ‘completely’, but much more magical is the English meaning: ‘beautiful fairy’.

8. Jessica - given to 2,703 baby girls

Just like almost everyone has a mate named Dave, rare is the person who doesn’t know a Jessica. Strangely, for such a common name, its origins are hazy: it’s thought that Jessica is derived from Latin (Jesca), Greek (Ieskha) and Hebrew (Yiskah). However, the first time a Jessica appeared in literature was in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, as the daughter of villainous moneylender Shylock.

7. Lily - given to 2,722 baby girls 

Unbelievably, Lily means… lily. Like the flower. White lilies have played a role in ancient mythology since 1580 BC, and were so revered by the ancient Greeks that it was believed they sprouted from the breast milk of Hera, the queen of the gods (cool). Colourful Peruvian lilies, in contrast, represent friendship and devotion, while pink stargazer lilies (above) are a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

6. Isabella - given to 2,729 baby girls 

Isabella is a version of Isabel, in itself a Spanish and Italian variation of Elizabeth, which means ‘pledged to God’ in Hebrew (come on, keep up). It’s thought that the recent surge in Isabella’s popularity (20 years ago it didn’t even make the top 100) can be partly attributed to the ‘Twilight effect’: Isabella ‘Bella’ Swan was the main character in Stephenie Meyer’s hugely popular teen novels.

But the name also has a more established literary connection: Isabella was an extremely virtuous (and slightly sanctimonious) character in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It’s also associated with iconic Italian actress Isabella Rossellini.

5. Ava - given to 3,285 baby girls 

There are several theories about where the name Ava comes from. It could be rooted in the Latin word avis, meaning ‘bird’, or be a shortening of the Hebrew name Chava (a version of Eve). While it’s undeniably a trendy choice for parents today, it’s actually an extremely old name. St. Ava was a 9th century abbess (the head of an abbey of nuns) in what is now Belgium, but was then part of the Roman Empire. It’s not clear exactly why she was made a saint – although perhaps just being a nun boss was enough.

4. Isla - given to 3,476 baby girls

A Scottish river or actress Isla Fisher: you decide where you heard the name first. Isla is also derived from Islay, an island off the west coast of Scotland: the name was originally spelled Ilay or Islay, and considered masculine. In 1996, just 86 baby Islas were born in England and Wales; in 2016, there were 3,476 (a jump of almost 4,000%). Confessions of a Shopaholic possibly has a lot to answer for.

3. Emily - given to 3,551 baby girls 

Emily, a Latin name meaning ‘industrious’, has been one of the most popular girls’ names in the UK for decades now. Interestingly, despite its high position in the rankings, there were still fewer Emilys born in 2016 than at any point in the previous 20 years, indicating that naming trends in England and Wales are becoming more diverse.

2. Amelia - given to 4,777 baby girls 

The name Emily derived from the Roman girls’ name Aemilia, so it’s not surprising that Amelia also means ‘industrious’, or ‘work’. In Germany, the name historically meant ‘defender’. The most famous Amelia is probably the legendary American aviator Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

1. Olivia - given to 5,017 baby girls 

Meaning ‘olive tree’ in Latin, the name Olivia was first popularised by Shakespeare (him again) with his play Twelfth Night. The Bard’s Olivia is a beautiful, wealthy but grief-stricken countess who falls in love with a woman disguised as a man. In ancient Greece, the olive was a symbol of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, craft and war, and a token of peace and fertility.

The 10 most popular boys’ names in England and Wales

10. Oscar - given to 3,894 baby boys in 2016

Oscar, meaning ‘god spear, deer-lover or champion warrior’ has enjoyed a sharp rise in popularity over the last few decades. Although the name is popular in Scandinavian and Spanish-speaking families, its origins are actually closer to home.

In Irish mythology, Oscar was the son of the fairy queen Niamh and Oisín, a warrior regarded as Ireland’s greatest poet. He was also the grandson of mythical Irish hunter-warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill. In other words, he came from a pretty decent family.

9. Thomas - given to 3,898 baby boys

You likely know several Toms, but unless you have a solid grasp of the New Testament, you probably didn’t know this. According to the Bible, Jesus gave the name Thomas to a follower called Judas (no, not that one), because there were just too many Judases around and it was getting confusing. As a result, Thomas – meaning ‘twin’ – was a moniker once only bestowed upon priests.

8. Muhammad - given to 3,908 baby boys

There are over 500 variations of the name for the Arab prophet who founded the Muslim religion. When all those variants are added together, Muhammad (meaning ‘praiseworthy’) is the most common name in the world. But it’s only the eighth most popular in the UK, given to a little over 3,900 baby boys in 2016.

7. Charlie - given to 4,190 baby boys

This jolly name is a nickname for Charles, an extremely old name meaning ‘free man’. The original Charles may have been King Cearl of Mercia, one of the kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman conquest. This name has also been linked to Karl, from old German. In more recent times, Charlie Wolf was the name Zooey Deschanel and husband Jacob Pechenik chose for their son, born in May this year.

6. Noah - given to 4,305 baby boys

Noah was the most popular boys’ name in the US in 2016, and came in at a very respectable sixth place in England and Wales. Meaning ‘rest, wandering’ (which seems like something of a contradiction in terms) in Hebrew, it’s still most associated with the ark.

Interestingly, the feminine name Noa – a separate female name from the Old Testament – is currently the most popular girls’ name in Israel

5. Jacob - given to 4,485 baby boys

Like Thomas and Noah, Jacob is a Biblical name; like Isabella, it seems to have been given a boost by the Twilight phenomenon (Jacob was name of the good-hearted werewolf in the book series, played in the films by Taylor Lautner). It means ‘supplanter’, or ‘replacer’.

4. Jack - given to 4,751 baby boys

Jack is actually a nickname for John, but the story of how it got there is something of a convoluted one. According to baby name experts Nameberry, John was changed to Johnkin (cute), which went to Jankin to Jackin to Jack. Apparently, the name was so common in the Middle Ages that Jack became a generic term for a man. 

3. George - given to 5,263 baby boys

George has always been a popular name for boys in the British Isles, although it actually has its roots in the Greek name Georgios, meaning ‘farmer’. The patron saint of England, George was also the name of kings in Britain for 116 years in a row in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It was also the name chosen for the future king of England – although the birth of Prince George in 2013 doesn’t seem to have caused a significant bump in the number of people giving their sons the name, suggesting that Prince William and Kate Middleton were following a trend rather than starting one.

Another fun George fact: former boxer and electric grill entrepreneur George Foreman named all five of his sons George. He says he did this “so they would always have something in common”.

2. Harry - given to 5,284 baby boys

Prince Harry, Harry Potter, Harry Styles: clearly, this is a name for fundamentally decent guys with a tendency to wind up in sticky situations. A medieval form of Henry (Prince Harry’s real name), it means ‘estate ruler’, and was the nickname of all eight King Henrys in British history.

1. Oliver - given to 6,623 baby boys

Who’d have thought it? Oliver holds the number one spot, just like its feminine variant Olivia. It has its origins in Old French, and like Olivia is associated with the Latin term olivarius (meaning ‘olive tree planter’). The name was introduced to England by the Normans, but fell out of usage in the 17th century thanks to the unpopularity of Oliver Cromwell.

It’s not clear what exactly sparked its modern resurgence – but expect to see lots of little Ollies running around a playground near you soon.

Images: Vanessa Serpas / Rex Features  / iStock