Thursday, November 8, 2018

Network analysis of the social and demographic influences on name choice within the UK (1838-2016)


Citation: Bush SJ, Powell-Smith A, Freeman TC (2018) Network analysis of the social and demographic influences on name choice within the UK (1838-2016). PLoS ONE 13(10): e0205759.


Chosen names reflect changes in societal values, personal tastes and cultural diversity. Vogues in name usage can be easily shown on a case by case basis, by plotting the rise and fall in their popularity over time. However, individual name choices are not made in isolation and trends in naming are better understood as group-level phenomena. Here we use network analysis to examine onomastic (name) datasets in order to explore the influences on name choices within the UK over the last 170 years. Using a large representative sample of approximately 22 million forenames from England and Wales given between 1838 and 2014, along with a complete population sample of births registered between 1996 and 2016, we demonstrate how trends in name usage can be visualised as network graphs. By exploring the structure of these graphs various patterns of name use become apparent, a consequence of external social forces, such as migration, operating in concert with internal mechanisms of change. In general, we show that the topology of network graphs can reveal naming vogues, and that naming vogues in part reflect social and demographic changes. Many name choices are consistent with a self-correcting feedback loop, whereby rarer names become common because there are virtues perceived in their rarity, yet with these perceived virtues lost upon increasing commonality. Towards the present day, we can speculate that the comparatively greater range of media, freedom of movement, and ability to maintain globally-distributed social networks increases the number of possible names, but also ensures they may more quickly be perceived as commonplace. Consequently, contemporary naming vogues are relatively short-lived with many name choices appearing a balance struck between recognisability and rarity. The data are available in multiple forms including via an easy-to-use web interface at

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