Our first names reveal more about us than we think. It reveals of course our gender, but also age, geographical home, and class belonging are mirrored in our names. But where are people named what? And how come some names never go out of fashion? Daily Sydsvenskan dug out the statistics. Today regional differences aren’t as big as they used to be, says ethnologist Charlotte Hagström, who does research in names at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences at Lund University. “If I meet someone with the names Jöns, Ola or Karna, names that signal the province of Skåne, I can no longer be as sure (that they come from Skåne) as I could five or ten years ago,” she says. The saying “Tell me your name and I’ll tell you who you are” is somewhat true, though, according to Hagström. “In all times and everywhere people have had names. But the names vary greatly depending on what society you live in. The taste in names is very closely connected to culture, and certain names are more common in certain groups, even though that is changing more and more. This is what makes names so interesting. The name you have really says more about the person or persons who gave it to you than about you.”
Some names that today are fairly neutral once belonged only to the upper class, such as royal names like Karl and Gustav and upper class names like Fredrik and Charlotte. Historically the middle class has worried about choosing the ‘right’ name. The upper and the lower classes have been more open-minded. Today our choices in names are more about trends than class belongings. “Today a baroness can be named Carola, even though that was not common before. And spellings with ‘c’ like Carl, Eric, and Oscar, that used to be seen as better or finer, is today more about fashion than class.” Ronny, Conny, and Sonny are good examples on names that are “class markers”. Says Hagström: “They are traditionally worker names, even though you can never be sure that that’s the case, the probability that someone with that name comes from that social environment is still high.” Then there are evergreens like Eric and Maria, two of the most common first names in Sweden, as timeless as the two most popular names, Anna and Lars. Why some names last is difficult to say, according to Hagström. “Perhaps the names that function well in the rest of the western world never seem dated,” she says. “But that’s just a guess.” Today around180,000 women’s names and 150,000 men’s names are being used in Sweden, according to Statistics Sweden. “The interest (in names) is great.
‘Namnsök’ (a search function that gives out information on how many has a particular name) is one of our absolutely most visited pages,” says population statistician Lena Bernhardtz.
Anders Malmsten, a journalist, became an expert in names when he became a father for the first time. His interest eventually led to four books on first names. “After my first publication on the topic, I realized (the issue with names) was bigger than I had understood it to be. It’s fun and fascinating how much you can tell of a society’s development in the names we use.” The children’s author Astrid Lindgren has influenced Swedish parents a lot in modern times when it comes to choosing names. Through her books, names like Emil, Ida, and Alfred became popular again, and names like Madicken and Ronja were introduced. But Malmsten believes these names also came at the right time. And that the use of names comes in cycles is something researchers all agree on. It takes around three generations before a “used” name can make its comeback.
“Astrid (Lindgren) had the right timing, she chose names that were in tune with society. The time was ripe for some of the names, but not for all of them. Even though Nils Karlsson Pyssling’s friend’s name is Bertil there wasn’t a single boy in the early 1990’s with that name, but many got it as their middle name.” Malmsten talks about names coming in waves.
“A strong fashion wave is followed by an anti-wave, and this is particularly true when it comes to names. A name goes from being very popular to becoming completely impossible, like my own name, Anders. In the generation of children being born right now it is extremely unpopular as a name. New parents don’t want to give their children names that they associate with their parents. That’s an important factor in understanding the wave of names.”
Meanwhile the middle names follow an opposite wave, parents still tend to choose grandmother’s and grandfather’s names as middle names, and Anders is still on the list of the 100 most common middle names. All old names can come back, says Malmsten. “In the beginning of the 20th century, Agnes was removed from the list of ‘namnsdagar’ (name’s days), and was replaced with Agnetha, which became extremely popular in the 1950’s. Now it is Agnes, which was deemed hopelessly out 100 years ago, that’s popular.” There are also impossible names. Events outside the private sphere may put their mark on how we pick names. Historical persons can color a name so strongly that it makes it near impossible. Like Adolf, a name very few boys in Sweden have been given since the end of WW2. Statistics Sweden carries no special statistics over unusual or unique names. “The reason is that there are so very many of them,” says Bernhartdz. “Today 142,000 people have names or spellings of names that they are alone to have, and that number is constantly increasing. People are very creative. For instance, we have found 120 different spellings of the name Therese, and only last year we received 4,412 all new girl’s names.” The interest in a unique name is a sign of the times, according to Anders Malmsten. “Up until the 1950’s, 80% of all kids had one of the names on the top-ten list. We had a collective society, where it was OK to be called Lars Andersson. Today, with Internet, that name makes it very difficult. The big thing now is having a unique name, we live in a society in which we want to be seen. The name becomes a brand, it should be easy to google and you want to be able to have a unique e-mail address. This is mirrored in the choices of names, people want to find something that’s different, fun, and individual.” There are limits even for this kind of creativity, however. “Sure, there are kids named Neon Laser and such names. But the most common thing to do is for parents to find a name that feels normal but that is still not very common.