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Farewell then, famous John

The most popular name in history slips quietly out of the top 100

Oh woe is John. For the first time, probably since the Middle Ages and certainly since statistics were first thought of, he’s gone missing from the top 100 names for newborn boys.

There was a time a little over a century ago when one in every five boys was called John. Now he’s out of favour at number 104 in the list for 2012 just published, trailing newcomers like Kayden, Seth and Ellis who all made it across the line and into the nineties.

Poor John has been in decline for a while and hasn’t topped the chart since the early 1950s. He joins Andrew, Richard, Stephen and Paul, other one-time high flyers, who have felt the chill of parental disfavour. Now it’s Harry who’s the undisputed champion.

Sad that old John Bull should come to this, the erstwhile symbol of heroic Englishness.

Scotland’s Johns have done rather better in 52nd place, holding off the challenge of Josh, Oscar and Jake. Perhaps the striding figure of Johnny Walker who since 1820 has brought cheer in a glass has stiffened the resolve of wavering parents tempted to embrace trendy alternatives. 

And Scotland famously has John o’Groats, the northern end of the extremity measured from Land’s End. The romance of that particular journey should be enough to preserve John’s status in the north however many Harrys, Jacks and Rileys push to the front.

John has been flowing through the nation’s blood since John of Gaunt’s masterful presence at the medieval court where he confronted opponents and fathered children with equal disregard for conventional niceties. Ever since, John has been a label worn by the powerful and the creative, the politicians and sometimes the crooks.

They’ve often enriched our lives: Milton’s poetry, Constable’s paintings, John Reith’s BBC. John Stuart Mill believed in women’s equality long before it was fashionable, John F Kennedy inspired the western world and John Lennon rocked a generation. John Cleese gave us Basil Fawlty, Johnny Rotten the Sex Pistols. John Lewis, never one to be undersold, taught Londoners the value of shopping.

The Penguin Book of First Names points all the way back to the high profile biblical characters John the Baptist and St John the gospel writer to explain the enduring love for a boy called John. Given these connections it’s not surprising that John is the most common name for popes. There have been 23 Popes John with the last occupying the Vatican from 1958 into the formative years of the swinging sixties.

Over time the jocund image of John has taken a few knocks. A Dear John letter stands as shorthand for action by any girlfriend who tells her bloke his time’s up. The dismissal today is most likely to come in a text message or email but the technique goes back to the second world war when American girls and wives left behind by their fighting men became tired of waiting and posted news of a new relationship ‘Dear John, I’m sorry to tell you I’ve found someone new…’

Jilted soldiers had to do their weeping in the John.





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