What in the name of St Patryk is going on with Irish names?


The girls’ list is notable for the absence of Irish names from the top 10

THIS IS THE STORY of a little boy called Mason. Actually, it’s the story of 115 boys called Mason – all of them born in 2011 and given a name that a few years ago was best known here as a surname, most famously appended to Perry or James. And it is the story of how someone who isn’t even the most famous person in her own family may be responsible.

A few years ago Mason was not entirely unknown as a first name. In 2006 a mere five were registered in Ireland. That year 417 names were more popular for boys.

Mason rose a little in popularity the following year, hovering close to 250th until 2009. Then, whoosh, Mason shot up. In 2010 the 59 new Masons were more than the previous three years put together. Last year that number almost doubled again, and according to Central Statistics Office figures released this week it entered the top 100 names for boys for the first time. An unusual name until very recently now sits between Christopher and Jason.

And for all that it would be nice to believe otherwise, Kourtney Kardashian, sister of Kim (Google informs me), appears to be behind this.

Kardashian named her boy Mason in December 2009 at a time when the name was 35th on the US list. It has featured in that top 100 for some years, so it is not particularly exotic, yet even in the US it has jumped in popularity since that boy’s birth, ranking second in 2011.

It would be a fair assumption that not everyone in the US or Ireland who named their kid Mason did so because it was the name chosen by the second-rate celebrity sister of someone who first made her fame (Google informs me) through a sex tape. Perhaps Kardashian happened to surf the wave of popularity rather than kick-start it. Yet the coincidence is striking.

When it comes to names, Ireland is culturally as well as geographically between the US and the UK. The girls’ lists share four and five names, respectively. (And the US crossover would rise to five were you to accept Ireland’s Sophie and the United States’ Sophia as essentially identical.)

The Irish list shows a drift away from Gaelic names. The girls’ list is notable for the absence of Irish names from the top 10, Aoife having clung on last year as a sole representative.

While Conor and Seán both remain inside the boys’ top five, a slip for each reflects a general downward trend among Irish names on both lists. Some, such as Daithí and Muireann, have risen, but they are farther down the list. The trend among those at the top is downwards.

In the meantime, eastern European names or variants of them have brought newness to the list, even if in a recognisable form. The most popular eastern European name is Jakub. A couple of years ago Patryk appeared in the top 100, thanks to newcomers’ dextrous attempt to reflect cultural roots while also fitting in with their adopted country.

So where does Mason – a name that has no cultural resonance here – come in? One big study of trends in US names argues that it’s impossible to guess what name will become popular, only that someone, somewhere will give their kid an unusual name that will gradually become a trend.

More recent studies have posited that several popular names in one year may be phonetic variations of a popular name from the previous year (for example, that Karen will lead to Claire or Katie or even Karl). And that the popular use of a name, either among peers or on the airwaves, does matter. It would appear no coincidence, then, that Michaela reappeared in the Irish top 100 in 2011.

So perhaps Kourtney Kardashian is responsible, at least as a tipping point, an unpredictable agent who gave prominence to a previously midranking name.

The psychologist Steven Pinker has said that in a society with the freedom to choose, many parents lean for names that are distinctive but not so distinctive that they will embarrass the children later in life.

They will also want to avoid names that sound geriatric, which is why they discard names popular in their grandparents’ generation. The outcome is that the majority become distinctive in the same way.

Which might further explain Mason. It is modern and novel, yet because it is familiar as a surname it is not so distinctive as to sound peculiar.

As it happens, Mason has become popular at the same time as Tyler. As the construction industry dies in Ireland, here’s a wild thought: maybe it’s a way of channelling the thwarted impulse of our deepest psyche.

shegarty@irishtimes.com @shanehegarty

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