Names picked straight from the garden
Every year, publication of the top baby names for the previous year provokes a flurry of newspaper articles. For the keen gardener, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of these lists lies in the astonishing fall and rise in the popularity of plants and flowers as names for baby girls.
The trend can be followed on the website of the Office for National Statistics, which lists the top 100 girls’ names for every 10th year from 1904 to 1994, and then for every year from 1996 onwards.
The Edwardian era was the heyday of flower names for girls, with Ivy, Violet, Lily, Rose, Daisy, May, Iris and Olive all in the top 100 in 1904 and 1914, although none made the top 10 — Mary was top in both years.
Thereafter it was downhill for most of the century, with the nadir in 1974, when the top 100 contained just a single plant name: Heather.
I don’t have information for every year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime in the Sixties or Seventies there was at least one year when there were no flower names at all in the top 100.
Curiously, however, after 1974 things began to look up, with three flower names in the top 100 in 1984, eight in 1994 and nine in 1996. In fact the last six years have achieved something the Edwardians never managed, which is a flower name in the top 10, indeed the same one in all those years: Lily. If we were to count Lilly as a variation on Lily, the combined total would have come top in 2011, by a wide margin.
Not far behind Lily is another Edwardian favourite, Daisy. Both re-entered the lists after a long absence in 1994 and have risen in popularity ever since, Daisy reaching its highest rank (15th) in 2010. Rose (and its variant Rosie) have also seen a major recovery in recent years.
The news on other Edwardian favourites, however, is grim. There has been no renaissance for Ivy, Violet or Olive, last seen in 1934, or Iris, not seen since 1944. It is hard to say why.
Maybe Olive never recovered from Popeye’s fickle and bad-tempered squeeze, Olive Oyl. Perhaps successive generations have been scarred by Just William’s nemesis Violet Elizabeth Bott (“I’ll thcream and thcream ’till I’m thick”), or still have nightmares about Ena Sharples’s (played by Violet Carson) hair net and milk stout in Coronation Street. Olive’s decline is surprising when you consider that a variation, Olivia, came top in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Recent top 100s are peppered with flower names: 10 in 2011. So what are they? Poppy, Jasmine and Holly (or Hollie) are the other popular names in recent years. All three first appeared in the mid-Nineties and have been popular ever since, especially Holly, which reached the highest rank for a flower name before the meteoric rise of Lily, reaching 12th in 2002. All these are, of course, English names. Latin plant names are rare in the top 100, with only three having ever made an appearance (five if we include Iris and Daphne, which both double as Latin and English names, and last appeared in 1944).
Veronica (speedwell) crept in at 83 in 1934, rose to 52 in 1944 and fell to 98 in 1954, corresponding perfectly to the career of Hollywood femme fatale Veronica Lake. Melissa (lemon balm) arrived in 1984, reached its highest rank (41) in 1994, and then slowly declined in popularity and was last seen in 2004. Phoebe (a tree in the laurel family) appeared in 1996 and has been popular since, showing (I guess) the continuing influence of Friends.
Despite the occasional celebrity endorsement for Prunella and Nigella (the latter a nod to father Nigel Lawson rather than to love-in-a-mist), no other Latin name appears in any top 100, suggesting (to me anyway) that Latin names are rather underemployed as girls’ names. Is there anyone out there called Ramonda or Azara, and if not, why not?
Finally, do flowers have any future as names for boys? I don’t think so. After all, Narcissus was a bloke, and look what happened to him.
Ken Thompson is a plant biologist with a keen interest in the science of gardening. He writes and lectures extensively. His latest book is Do We Need Pandas? The Uncomfortable Truth
Flower names: more popular now than ever – Daisy (Lowe), Nigella, Violet Elizabeth, Phoebe, Lily (both Cole and Allen), Olive, Holly (Willoughby) and Prunella have all had a moment in the spotlight