Oliver, Oliver, never before has a boy’s name achieved less – and yet here it is, top of the popularity charts once again.
On Wednesday morning, when the Office for National Statistics published its annual data about babies born in England and Wales during the previous year, it came as no surprise that Oliver was the most selected boy’s name in 2019. There were 4,930 new Olivers in 2019 – some 357 babies ahead of second-placed George. That makes it seven years on the trot.
It’s an embarrassing run – even for us Olivers – not least because we have registered so very little of note, in terms of fame or infamy, recently. Think about it: there are no genuinely prominent Olivers in our society right now (no, Jamie doesn’t count).
But herein, I think, lies the reason behind Oliver’s popularity. It’s a name that succeeds through mediocrity. The dearth of Olivers on the A-list (or B-list, for that matter) means that while we’re not known for our rampaging success, neither are we connoted with modern infamy. I can’t think of a single unpopular, toxic, living Oliver. There’s nothing to put parents off when it comes to naming their nippers.
You may recall that in 2016 there were no new Nigels registered in England and Wales. Is it any coincidence that the divisive Nigel Farage was so dominant in the media in the run-up to a country-splitting vote on June 23 that year? Last October, in the heady days before anyone knew or cared about social distancing, one Nigel, a pub landlord in Worcestershire, even held a party for his “dying breed” namesakes.
And who calls their child Gary these days? (Actually, the answer is 20 sets of parents in 2019, according to the ONS – but you take my point.)
Personally, I’m proud to be an Oliver. I consider it a smart, charming name, though most of the time it’s shortened to Ollie, or even Ol, which are scruffier – but unobtrusive and generally fine. Given my unusual surname, I’ve always felt that Oliver’s commonness and ordinariness serves me well.
You have to cast your net wider, beyond living celebrities, to find examples of notable Olivers.
Oliver Reed features in almost every list. And every list is short of genuine stardust. The notorious hell-raiser died in 1999, aged 61, of a heart attack during a break from filming Gladiator. The tragedy happened after a drinking session – involving lager, rum, whiskey and cognac – in Malta during which he reportedly triumphed over a handful of much younger Royal Navy sailors at arm-wrestling.
Ironically, Reed shot to acting fame after starring as Bill Sikes in Oliver!, the 1968 film – based on Charles Dickens’ second novel (more of which below) – that won an Oscar for Best Picture. The epitaph on his gravestone, in Churchtown, County Cork, where Reed lived in later years, reads: “He made the air move.”
How many Olivers have made the air move in the last 21 years, since Reed tapped out? The most recent truly famous UK-born Oliver died in 2015; but even Oliver Sacks, the celebrated neurologist and author, spent most of his career in America.
With all due respect to Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, he’s unlikely to trouble historians one way or another.
Overseas, there’s Hollywood director Oliver Stone, and footballers Oliver Bierhoff (now retired) and Olivier (sic) Giroud. Not bad – but not in the same league as your Quentins or Lionels.
Of course, there’s one historical figure who looms like an elephant in the room: Oliver Cromwell, the man who led the Parliament of England’s armies against King Charles I during the Civil War and ruled the British Isles as Lord Protector from 1653 until his death five years later.
Oddly, Cromwell had the Normans to thank for his forename: it was they who introduced Oliver to England, during their conquest in the 11th century. The name waned somewhat after Cromwell’s reign, then surged two centuries later, thanks to Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
And what does Oliver mean? It’s derived from the Latin “olivarius”: olive tree – a symbol of peace. Indeed, it can be traced back to mean “kind one” in Old Norse. Perhaps that’s the real, underlying reason for Oliver’s continued popularity: in these times of great highs and lows, mediocrity allied with peace seems like a good combination.
So, who fancies organising a socially distanced party to celebrate Olivers? There will be plenty of us in attendance.
This article was first published in The Telegraph in August 2020