How Oliver and Olivia became the go-to names for millennial parents

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Those are the two names that, year after year, take on all-comers and are still on top.

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Oliver and Olivia are like Man Utd under Alex Ferguson or the All Blacks in early teens: merciless, table-topping machines.

For the fifth year running, they have emerged as the most popular baby names for boys and girls in both England and Wales. No one has been out of the top two for a decade now.


Come on – in a competition with virtually unlimited potential challengers; Colin, anyone? – Two names barely sweating to sit once again at the top of the annual Office of National Statistics table.

For so long the twin pair have held their high positions, they have seen three prime ministers, two US presidents, and a pandemic. When Oliver and Olivia first hit the top spot, Brexit still wasn’t a thing. They provide a clear beacon of stability in our age of uncertainty.

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The bigger question, though, might be, why? That is to say, in an era when trends and fashion move at the pace of TikTok and when individualism is at the top, why these two names – one most commonly associated with a vengeful genocide; With the second cold that multiplies – such an ongoing fascination for parents?

Why were nearly 8,000 tots given to Oliver and Olivia in 2020, yet no one – not an only child – had the honor of being Nigel, for example?

“The simple answer is we don’t have the slightest idea – it’s puzzling,” says Richard Coates, Professor Emeritus of Onomastics at the University of the West of England. “This is a contradiction to the general modern trend because, historically, there were names that remained popular for centuries – for example John and Richard would have been in the top five for six hundred years – but this was not the case in the late 20th century. Changed, and do we see now the names are on the top and then going down. But Oliver and Olivia seem to disregard it.”

Does it feel good somehow? Could its phonetics appeal to some evolutionary level?

“I’m sure it’s the people who chose it,” says Pro Coates. “You get parents saying ‘I called them such and such because I like names’ but it is very difficult to separate why a name is popular from other possible reasons.”

Baby name expert Claire Green with son David

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Baby name expert Claire Green with son David

The particular mystery with Oliver and Olivia is that there seemed to be no recognizable spark to their current rise.

Many of the most common names in 2020 can be traced back to one reason or another, whether it’s the royal connotation (George), Hollywood influence (Leo), demographic shift (Muhammad) or this country’s bar with the Australian soap Let’s be a simple indicator of passion. (Isla).

Yet with Oliver and Olivia – not so much.

It doesn’t seem likely that new parents will respect, for example, Reed at one end of the scale or Rodrigo at the other. There hasn’t been any immigration pattern that has brought us more Oliver since it was first introduced here during the Norman Conquest, while Dickens’s child orphan – as permanent as he is – seems an unlikely inspiration. They aren’t even names that bother grandparents. Because of their association with Cromwell, Pro Quotes says, they were a semi-tainted moniker for centuries.

Yet to the contrary, some say the last point may be part of the appeal.

Despite being consistently in the top three names for nearly 15 years, both handles can still feel novel to this generation of parents because they didn’t hear much of them in childhood.

“They were around when we were little but they weren’t popular so they feel quite fresh,” says Claire Green, editor of the Nameberry website. “And there is no other name like him. You get groups that sound pretty similar — Ava, Ada, Alba — but nothing like Oliver so it feels distinctive.”

Vowels are also in vogue, it seems. “In the seventies and eighties, you had names that were more heavily on dishes like James and Sarah,” Greene says. “But there has been a great inclination towards more flowing sounds of vowels.”

By reverse token, it’s probably no surprise that names like Nigel are temporarily extinct. This generation associates it with older men and struggles to apply it to children. Generation Z can feel the same way about once-ubiquitous names like David and Laura.

“But they didn’t last forever,” says Ms Green, who actually named her son David. “We talk about the 100-year rule where a name has been out for so long, it starts to feel fresh again. So, over the next 50 years, names like Nigel and Carol and Barbara — Can be trendy thing.

The 100-year rule may, in fact, explain why Mabel is currently growing in popularity.

All of which probably leaves one final question. How long can we expect two o’s to slap all the challengers? It’s been a while, it seems.

Names that reach the top of the charts do well. Sarah – now out of the top 100 – had a decade as number one in the seventies and eighties. William was probably in the top five from the medieval to the early 20th century.

Still, there may be signs that Oliver and Olivia are beginning to emanate. While both names are slightly popular among older moms, it is now decreasing among their younger counterparts. His time may be near. Maybe two generations from now on, Nigel’s will follow.

What can take their place? “Only the future will tell,” says Ms. Green. Future and Gen Z.


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