Monday, September 17, 2012

Downton Abbey - A Name Study

Oh, the awesomeness that is Downton Abbey. The ever-popular British show is back with its third series, which began last night in the UK. I love most all things British, and this show is no exception (and I hope I don't embarrass myself to any UK readers).  To go along with the great stories, fabulous wardrobe, history and culture, and brilliant accents, there are the names:

Martha (Cora's American mother... a new edition to the show)

Alfred (new to series 3)
Jimmy (new to series 3)
Ivy (new to series 3)

There is not a name on this list that I don't love. What a pleasure it is to see what is described as the Scottish form of Isabel in Isobel (ranked #75 in England/Wales and #81 in Ireland), as well as the Roman mythology name of Lavinia. The servants' names seem to be the more "traditional" and "timeless" names of the bunch.

Cora is a great story. The name has a recorded high of #15 in 1880 (which is probably around the time the character Cora was born... she is American). It consistently fell to its lowest rank of #877 in 1988. And since 1988, it has gradually risen to #207 in 2011. We have seen a great return to the "old-fashioned" names of late, and Cora is definitely along for the ride. It jumped 72 spots from 2010... could that have been a result of the success of Downton Abbey?  It is also ranked #77 in Northern Ireland and #438 in England/Wales in 2010.

Another "old-fashioned" name that has stuck around is Edith.  It has been in the top 1000 ever since they started recording popularity of names in 1880. It has had a steady decline since then (#28 in 1880 and #771 in 2011), but has recently risen from its lowest ranking of #842 in 2009. Edith ranked #259 in England/Wales in 2011. The earliest information I could find for England/Wales is 1904, when Edith ranked #4.

Other rankings from 1904 in England/Wales (I only have the top 100): Mary was #1, Edith was #4, Elsie was #10, Ethel was #13, Ivy was #16, Violet was #17, Sarah was #21, Jane was #43, Daisy was #47, and Gwendoline (possibly Gwen's real name) was #56. Sybil doesn't show up on the list (it's only given every 10 years) until 1924 when it was #99. As for Anna, Annie was #6, Anne was 61, and Ann was #67, but Anna doesn't appear until 1954 when it was #88. Beryl shows up in 1914 as #93. The boys are somewhat more predictable. William was #1, John was #2, Thomas was #4, James was #6 (possible real name of Jimmy), Charles was #7, Alfred was #11, Joseph was #13, Robert was #15, Richard was #25, Tom was #63, and Matthew was #84.

The show seems to be very accurate in terms of names for the time period.  The only real outlier I see is Sybil.  Why go from two very popular names in Mary and Edith to Sybil?  It wasn't even that popular in the United States around the time Sybil would have been born (ranked around the low #400s in the early 1900s).  Maybe Cora read it in a book and really liked it.  Or maybe they knew a great woman who bore the name.  I wonder.

Which leads me to my final observation and question.  Will the outlier create another outlier or return back to the top?  When series three starts, the year is 1920 and Sybil's character is pregnant. What will the baby's name be? As I said earlier, I have only been able to find the top names in England/Wales for every ten years, so while I cannot give you the top ten in 1920, I can provide you with an idea of the top names during that time. The top ten in 1914 were Mary, Margaret, Doris, Dorothy, Kathleen, Florence, Elsie, Edith, Elizabeth, and Winifred for the girls and John, William, George, Thomas, James, Arthur, Frederick, Albert, Charles, and Robert. The top ten in 1924 were Margaret, Mary, Joan, Joyce, Dorothy, Kathleen, Doris, Irene, Elizabeth, Eileen for the girls and John, William, George, James, Thomas, Ronald, Kenneth, Robert, Arthur and Frederick. What would you choose among those names?  Or do you think it will be something completely different? I can only hope it's a unique name and not a Tom Jr or a Robert in honor of Sybil's dad.  

Any UK readers will get to find out the baby's name sooner rather than later. Aren't they the lucky ones! In any case, enjoy the show... whenever you get to watch it.  :)

P.S. If anyone knows where I can find more comprehensive historical data for names in the UK, contact me at the email address linked to the right.  Thank you!



  1. Oh it was so good last night! I'll have to look the names over again, but I think Sybill will choose at least one Irish name for her child. Kathleen...Eamon? But if I were picking, I'd go for Irene and Frederick.

  2. Wait - can we watch it already in the US? I'm dying for January 2013 ...

    1. my friend Jacqueline who commented above lives in the UK. :) those in the States have to wait until January. :(

  3. This is old news now but after a tragic twist... well I don't want to say the baby's name.

    However I loved this list you put together and all the information. Sybil's my favorite character and therefore one of my new favorite names. I too wondered where it came from after Mary and Edith. I also can't seem to track down good name records for the UK. Oh well.

    Thanks for the post!

    Kara (The Art of Naming)


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