The ranking of most popular baby names depends on how you count them

10 September 2019
What was claimed

Various spellings of the name Muhammad combined rank number one for most popular boys name in England and Wales in 2018.

Our verdict

This all depends on how you count the various spellings of Muhammad and other boys’ names and abbreviations of names. If you count Henry and Harry variations together, they come higher.

A Facebook post claims that Muhammad was the most popular boys name in England and Wales in 2018 (when the name’s various spellings are counted together).

The figures quoted in the graphic are correct. But with baby names it all comes down to what you consider to be the same name. Is a name with a different spelling the same name as another, and what about common abbreviations?

Looking just at the official list of baby names published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Oliver was the most popular boys’ name last year, followed by George, Harry, Noah and then Jack. Muhammad is eighth on the list—what the graphic on Facebook does is combine a number of different ways of spelling that name.

There are many different spellings of the name Muhammad that were recorded for babies born last year—more than the ones shown in the graphic. There around 7,100 baby boys born and given that name and another 100 or so given it as the first of a double-barrelled name.

If we look at other names that appear in the graphic, variations of the name Oliver (including double-barrelled first names and abbreviations like Olly) appear around 6,500 times. In 2017, variations on Oliver were more common than the various spellings of Muhammad.

Variations and abbreviations (including double barrelled versions) of the name George appear about 5,200 times in 2018, and versions of the name Harry almost 4,800 times.

But Harry itself is an abbreviation or nickname of Henry. If we add up all the versions of the names Harry and Henry there were over 8,100 baby names registered in 2018—putting them at the top of the list.

There are many ways the list of most popular baby names can be broken down and added up. In a blog post separate from the statistical release, the ONS said: “We don’t add together names with similar spellings, or names with the same historic derivation. To do so would soon take us into the realms of subjectivity.”

It adds that while the range of baby names overall has been diversifying in recent years “the number of babies named Muhammad (including variant spellings) has remained pretty consistent over the last 10 to 15 years. This is a key reason why Muhammad has climbed up the rankings in recent years.”

“Back in 1996, when we first published annual lists of baby names with full counts, the top boys’ name was Jack. There were 10,779 baby Jacks, a whopping 3.2% of all baby boys born that year.

“Now the number 1 name is given to only half that proportion of baby boys.”

We think the ONS does not make this sufficiently clear in the release, meaning that readers are not given the information to fully judge the issue for themselves.

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