How popular are Australia’s multicultural names?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull insists that Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world, and more than one in four people living in Australia today were born overseas - the highest proportion in more than 100 years. But the list of Australia's most popular names might make you think otherwise.

What are today’s most popular names?

For the past four years, more Australian babies have been called Oliver than any other name. The name has roots in north-western Europe in France, Scandinavia and England - similar to much of the top 100 list.

Among boys' names, Oliver is followed by William, Jack and Noah, according to McCrindle research’s most recent baby names report.

Charlotte, Olivia, Mia and Ava lead the options for girls. Again, all have ties to north-western Europe.

Despite a growing share of Australia's population being born overseas, particularly in Asian countries such as China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam, Australia's most common names list is dominated by those with origins to Europe.

Ashley Fell, from McCrindle Research, said that in the cultures of many of Australia's new arrivals, the surname, more than the given name, is used to denote ancestry.

"The given names they are calling their babies are more likely to reflect their locale," she said.

"So while their family and ancestry will come through their surname, they can connect a bit with the place they will grow up, by giving their child a more mainstream given name."

What are the most popular 'other' names?

In top 100 list, the most popular boys’ name considered non-traditional in Australia is Kai, ranked 57th. Mila (or its alternative spelling Milla) is highest among girls, ranked 48th.

Muhammad is ranked 80th for boys, while for girls Ayla is 69th and Aisha in 94th.

The team from the Behind the Name website has classified names into different “usages”, based on whether a name is "well-established as being traditional" to a culture, language or region, or is "used by a broad segment of the population" of a country.

But it’s not a perfect process - for example, Ali is given an English usage because of the popularity of the abbreviated form of Alison.

These are the names on both lists without English, Scottish and Irish usages:

  • Boys - Luca, Kai, Muhammad
  • Girls - Sofia, Mila, Milla, Ayla, Aisha

The Behind the Name database also identifies "modern" names:

  • Boys - Jaxon, Jayden, Aiden, Luca, Kai, Ryder
  • Girls - Sienna, Maddison, Willow, Zara, Piper, Eden, Ariana, Hayley, Aaliyah, Brooklyn

Why isn't Muhammad more popular in Australia?

In England and Wales, Muhammad and its spelling variants has been identified by some media as the most common name in recent years, but it is far less popular in Australia, even after factoring in the smaller Muslim population.

Muhammad is the twelfth most popular name on the English list, with more than half the number of babies named Oliver - also the UK’s top name.

In Australia, Muhammad only entered the top 100 in 2013 and despite moderate growth, still ranks just 80th. More than six times as many Olivers were born in 2016 than Muhammads. In New South Wales the name ranks 58th, but there were still only around one quarter as many baby Muhammads as baby Olivers.

In 2011, Muslims accounted for five per cent of the population of England and Wales. In Australia it was was approximately half that at 2.2 per cent.

Around 3700 babies called Muhammad were born in England and Wales in 2015 - approximately one in every 200 babies. In Australia the rate is approximately one in 1000 - well below the ratio suggested by the difference in Muslim populations alone.

Following media reporting of the name’s popularity, the Office of National Statistics in Britain was prompted to address the rise of the name Muhammad last year.

The nation’s statistical body suggested the prominence in the UK of sportsmen like Mohamed (Mo) Farah may have played a role in the increasing popularity of all variants of the name.

Keysar Trad, President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, suggested some of the less common spellings of Muhammad, such as Mehmet (the Turkish form), might be more common in Australia given the make-up of the local Muslim population.

Ali, another name with Islamic roots, is more common in Australia, where it ranks 93rd, than it is in the UK, where it's ranked 137th.

When have 'exotic' names peaked in popularity?

Because the states keep their own records of names separately, national data for the top 100 names has only been available since 2012 - and largely due to research from private companies.

Some states such as Victoria do not publish records from previous decades. Others, like NSW, share only the top 100 each year.

But in South Australia, data for every name of every baby born since World War II has been made available.

South Australia's top 1000 names since the 1940s shows peaks in 'exotic' names that reflect migration to Australia over time.

The wave of Italian and Greek migration in the 1950s and 1960s generated a boom in 'exotic' names that has not been match in the decades since.

In the 1980s, Thi and Thanh enjoyed their most popular period, following the surge of Vietnamese refugee arrivals. But these new names were rare in an era that appears more traditional compared to the previous generation.

In the past 20 years, novel names with only slight cultural connections like Luca, Mila, Asha and Kai, as well as celebrity names like Demi, Charlize and Kobe, have become popular - particularly for girls - despite a growing number of migrants living in South Australia.

McCrindle's Ms Fell said parents may be reluctant to use exotic names today because they recognise the extra challenges their child may face if their name is hard to pronounce or difficult to spell.

"That is why it is common to see straightforward names like Oliver, William, Charlotte and Olivia dominating the top of the list," she said.

Most popular names around the world

The UK and Australia both share a love for Oliver, while Amelia, fifth on the Australian list, is the top girls’ name in the UK.

In the US in 2016, Emma, just 30th on Australia’s list, was the top girls’ name. Noah, Australia’s fourth most popular boys' name, was the most popular.

Louise was the most popular girls’ name in France in 2015, ahead of Emma and Jade. Gabriel, followed by Jules and Lucas, were most popular among boys.

Spain’s favourites were Hugo and Lucia; Italy’s were Francesco and Sofia; and Switzerland’s were Noah and Mia. In Turkey, Yusuf was popular for boys, and Zeynep for girls.

In China, given names are typically used after the family name. Common given names for boys are Wei, Qiang and Jun. Among girls, Fang, Ying and Na are popular.

India’s most popular girls’ names in 2013 were Saanvi, Aanya and Aadhya, while among boys Aarav, Vivaan and Aditya were top.