Why 'Keira' and 'Mohammed' are hot British baby names

These are lean times for Davids in Britain.

They've had their heroes in the past, from statesman Lloyd George to filmmaker Lean, and from soccer star Beckham to rock star Bowie. But now the name that means "beloved" seems to have lost the nation's affection. For the first time in more than 50 years, David no longer appears in the list of top 50 baby names.

Nowadays, a British boy is far more likely to be called Kyle or Dylan than Peter or Paul, neither of which feature in the top 100. And significantly, Mohammed, with its differently spelled variants, is now the fifth most popular given name in the country, with more than 5,000 babies named for the founder of Islam last year.

According to recent surveys, many of Britain's old favorites, names which have ruled the roost for centuries, are being supplanted by an eclectic mix of the exotic and trendy. At the same time, traditional biblical names like David and John are falling on hard times, but a new crop of scripturally inspired names - like Joshua and Joseph - are climbing the charts.

Experts point to a number of reasons for the trend. They say parents still want names that express solid moral and spiritual values, perhaps because of the uncertainty of the times. But they also want uniqueness, bringing in a whole new slate of names to challenge perennial favorites.

"Names are an insight into social trends," says Tristan Hopkinson, brand manager with Bounty, a baby-product marketing company. "They go in and out in cycles. But there are those like John, ... a constant feature since 1899, which have a fairly long life cycle. And then those which have a shorter cycle, which pop in and out."

Decline of David

John, like David, has fallen on hard times. In surveys released recently by Bounty and by the government Office for National Statistics, John languished in the mid-60s on the list of most-popular boys' names in 2004. Lewis and Ethan are now far more popular. Robert and Christopher occupy similarly low spots. David hovers at No. 56.

"I was shocked," said David Maund, a 34-year-old executive and one of the thousands of British Davids getting used to their new lowly status.

"Maybe it's because some celebrity Davids have fallen from grace in recent times, like David Beckham, David Blunkett, or even David Brent," the hapless protagonist in the hugely popular sitcom "The Office," he adds.

"These three have collectively given our name a bad, er, name."

The girls' lists are no less striking, with Paige and Madison now preferred to old staples like Victoria and Katherine. Jane, Mary, and Margaret don't even make the top 100. Jack and Emily topped the 2004 list. But neither name featured prominently 20 years ago.

One of the reasons for the decline in old favorites is the proliferation of names now available to parents. In Elizabethan England, parents essentially had to choose from barely a dozen names steeped in tradition, religion, and genealogy. Even by the mid-20th century the pool of names considered acceptable was significantly smaller than today.

As in America, baby names in Britain today are derived from a bewildering array of sources.

"Compared to several hundred years ago, when a large percentage of the population would have been named John or William or something like that, there is certainly a lot more diversity now," says Mike Campbell, who runs an American website that explores the etymology and history of names.

Nowadays, place names, surnames, television characters, minority cultures - even fruit and seasons are providing inspiration. Unorthodox spellings are also increasingly popular.

"People do seem to look to celebrity and also to America as well," says a spokeswoman for the National Statistics office.

But Bounty says that is only half the picture. Celebrity names motivated just 11 percent of parents, according to a recent study, compared with 14 percent who wanted a traditional name and 26 percent who looked for a name from their own family tree.

And while only 4 percent said they wanted a religious name, the top-10 boys' list reads like a who's who of the Old Testament.

"Although popular myth would have it that we live in secular age, the names with solid moral and spiritual value are still coming through," says Hopkinson.

Baby branding

She says that most parents understand that a baby's name is a brand, and by giving it the name of a role model, parents are hoping to bestow that child with the positive attributes of that name. She said that 56 percent of parents felt their children grew up to be like their name.

Which may be a problem if you are called Apple Paltrow Martin or Zowie Bowie. Unlike other European countries, particularly Scandinavian, Britain places few restrictions on the names parents can give children. As long as it fits in the box on the registration document and is not obscene (in which case registrars may object) any name will stand, no matter how eccentric.

Once the outlandish was the exclusive preserve of superstars. But now, more and more parents want "special" names for their children.

Striving for originality

The Bounty survey found that 25 percent sought out a given name which to their knowledge nobody else had. Others express disappointment when they find they have plumped for a name that has suddenly become popular.

"We thought we were being really original," says Alice Brotherton, who named her firstborn Ellie when she was born last June. "We didn't look at the top-10 list at all. Then a friend said she was the first of three baby Ellies whom she knew of, and now it turns out it's the No. 2. We were gutted."

Ironically, the long-forgotten Johns and Davids may be about to benefit from this trend. After all, if the current vogue for creative names continues, it won't be long before these commonplace names become rare treasures.

"I'm quite happy to be part of a more exclusive club," says John Stammers, a resident of Devon, southwest England. "I think people's need to embrace diversity and individuality has superseded John's manly charms. Instead of recycling names from an established list of male stalwarts, parents are starting to be as creative with boys' names as they have been for a good while with girls'. This is a good thing."

Maund, too, has high hopes for his fellow Davids. "In a way, I'm actually rather pleased," he says. "When I was growing up, Davids were ten-a-penny. At least that won't be the case any more."

And he has a message for his comrades: "In the meantime, to all of you Davids out there who value our name: Let's keep our noses clean in 2005 and watch our name reclaim its rightful spot in the top 50 once more."

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