According to the Office for National Statistics, 6,649 baby boys were named Oliver last year, making it the most popular baby name for boys born in the UK. This was closely followed by Jack, and then Harry, followed by Jacob, Charlie, Thomas and George; and then come Oscar, James and William. A veritable feast of Norman French, if not Germanic, obscure Gaelic, biblical Hebrew and Greek with a smattering of medieval English diminutives.
But it’s misleading. The ONS background notes (p7) inform us:
The published rankings have been produced using the exact spelling of first names given on the birth certificate. Grouping names with similar pronunciation would change the rankings. Although some groupings are straightforward, others are more a matter of opinion, and thus raw data are given so users can group if they wish.
Which the BBC helpfully extrapolates (right at the bottom of the page):
Spelling variations of the same name are counted separately in the data from the ONS. When considering name variations in the top 100, the Muslim name Mohammed totals 7,240, compared with the top boys’ name Oliver at 6,649.
And this was also the case last year, and the year before, and the year before that (and, indeed, the year before that and the year before that). And so, year after year, all the media headlines ritually sustain the perception of classic and cultured Englishness, while the truth is a little different, and the one they call ‘The Prophet’ is conquering the baby-name charts.
But God forbid the BBC might incite middle England to splutter over their cornflakes. They just wouldn’t go with: ‘Mohammed overtakes Oliver, Jack and Harry as most popular baby name’, for fear of fomenting Islamophobia. The Independent didn’t mind last year: ‘Mohamed tops boys’ list‘, they announced, which the Daily Mail corroborated: ‘How Muhammad is now the most popular name for baby boys..‘ And between that ‘Mohamed’ and ‘Muhammad’, you begin to see the problem. They’ve been on the case at least since 2007, when the Telegraph made the same prophecy: ‘Mohammed to overtake Jack as favourite name‘.
But it didn’t. The media went mute on the matter, and every year since we’ve been fed Oliver, Jack and Harry as the most popular baby names for boys. How could a name (the most common spelling of which is ‘Muhammad’) which was Number 17 in 2007 have disappeared altogether in 2008? It is as if there were a conspiracy to conceal the multicultural reality.
The convention is that names spelt differently are recorded differently. Thus Phillip is distinct from Philip, and Stephen from Steven, despite identical pronunciation. If the rules were changed, it wouldn’t then be case of having to classify Ollie with Oliver, or Harry with Henry, or Jack with John, as the Guardian posits, because such variations have become quite distinct names in their own right: indeed, the etymological derivations would be unknown to the vast majority of people. But the spelling variations of the Islamic prophet have no bearing at all on the pronunciation, whether it’s spelt with a ‘u’, or an ‘o’, or two ‘m’s or one
Even when one takes into account that there are at least 14 different spellings of the name, it is puzzling that there isn’t a petition in Tower Hamlets for official recognition of the ascendancy. The main two variations – Mohammed and Muhammad (a non-Arab Muslim would adopt the name ending in ‘-ed’ while an Arab Muslim would adopt the ‘-ad’ ending) – are complemented by Mohammad, Muhammed, Mohamed, Mohamad, Mahammed, Mohammod, Mahamed, Muhammod, Muhamad, Mohmmed, Mohamud and Mohammud. And these are augmented still by the much less-common Mehmet or Mohemet.
The name ‘Muhammad’ (which, however it’s spelt, means ‘one who is praiseworthy’), like all transliterations, comes from replacing the Arabic script with what is deemed its closest Latin equivalent. It is well known that Muslim parents like to have something that shows a link with their religion or with their prophet. Parents who name their son Mohammed believe that the name has an effect on their personality and future characteristics. They are saying that this boy will be of good character.
Muslims account for 4.8% of the British population – about 2.7 million people. This is being swelled every year through procreation and immigration (legal and illegal), so much so that demographic estimates project a Muslim majority in the UK by 2050. The Muslim birthrate is roughly three times higher than the non-Muslim one. ONS statistics show that Muslim households are generally larger than those of other religions: the average size of a Muslim household is 3.8 people while a third contained more than five people. It is therefore unsurprising that ‘Muhammed’ entered the Top 30 names in 2000, reached Number 17 in 2007 (an increase of 12%), and its rise up the league tables ever since has been driven by the growing number of young Muslims having families and naming their baby boys after their prophet.
In London, Muhammed is No.1 and Mohammed is No.10. Perhaps if British Muslims were to standardise the spelling, they would guarantee themselves the UK top slot in 2015. Whichever way you look at it, a preponderance of Mohammeds, Muhammeds, Mohameds or Muhameds has to be better than hordes of babies called Danerys, Sansa, Theon, Tyrion or Khaleesi. And let’s not ignore the gross offence of Princess Tiaamii, Fifi Trixibell, Bluebell Madonna, Apple and Moon Unit.