What’s in a name?

We’re doomed… or so many people would have it. It seems to be a common thread in newspaper articles and their responses, and blogs too, that Britain is changing demographically at a huge rate, and so in X number of years ‘we’ll be a Muslim country’. The latest versions of this were the stories on baby names – an annual affair – and the recurring story that such and such a city will be majority Muslim, or majority X, or ‘whites will be in a minority’.

The baby names story is interpreted as:

‘Mohammed is top boys name’ (Express), Mohammed, the nation’s (secret) favourite name (Telegraph)

Often, this data is presented in terms of a conspiracy: the ONS is disguising the fact that Mohammed is the most popular boys name by treating all spellings separately. This is, of course, nonsense: the data is available for people to do these calculations, it isn’t buried. If we think about spellings and variants both the boys and girls lists would change. Do we count Harry and Henry together? What about Isabelle and Isabella? Putting these two together would make Issy the 2nd most popular girls name.

This discussion also misses the most important question about trying to translate baby name tables into demographic analysis. How do these name distributions relate to religious distribution? For if we are to look at the boys list, Mohammed is the only Muslim boy’s name in the top 100, and it accounts for 6,535 of 204,494, around 3.2%.

And this needs to be put in the context of how Mohammed is used as a name. Globally, one in five Muslim men have Mohammed as a first name, and I think in the UK it would be even higher. Often, though, it isn’t the name that is used: lots of people have Mohammed as first name, but are referred to by the name after (see the Indie for an example). It’s this convention that means that Mohammed getting to number one in the list does NOT mean that more Muslims were born than anyone else. I’d guess that the 3.2% of boys born being Muslim is probably close to the actual figure.

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Filed under bad social science, News, Statistics and simplicity

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