What's in a Name? Like Bob and Dylan, Times They are a-Changin'

Posted on September 23, 2015

The looming AFL Grand Final prompted us to investigate naming trends of players over the past century.

Many AFL surnames feature consistently throughout the history of the game, often reflecting members of the same extended family.  The name Merrett is one example, spanning the AFL landscape over five decades.  Essendon Football Club players Jackson and Zach Merrett are great nephews of Collingwood Football Club great Thorold Merrett who played in the 1950s.  Roger Merrett who played for Essendon and the Brisbane Lions in the 80s and 90s, and Leo Merrett who played for Richmond in the 40s are Thorold’s cousins.

Other surnames to have spanned the AFL ages are Daniher, Ablett, Tuck, Shaw, Kennedy, Ball and Russo.

But while surnames may show some consistency and stability over time, the popularity of given names has changed greatly.  OriginsInfo analysed the given names of AFL players to determine how names have changed over four sample decades from the past century.

It is interesting to note that no single name features on all five lists, demonstrating the fluidity of given names over time as trends change.  Of today’s top 20 AFL given names, Tom is the only name that features on the top 20 list of the 1920s. It then falls out of the top 20 list until the 2000s.   While John reigns supreme in the 1920s and 1930s it doesn’t feature at all in the 2000s.

Apart from each decade having a different mix, the number of players bearing a particular name has reduced markedly.  Present day names are much more diverse with parents choosing from many different given names.  The range of names was more restricted 50-100 years ago. In 1950 125 AFL players were named John.  This compares with only 23 incidences of Matthew, the most popular name in the 2000s, and, of course, there are now many more teams and players than in the 1920s and 1950s.

We analysed the data further to find the names with the highest concentration in each decade.  This gives us a unique insight into names that are particular to a certain era.  Names like Hec, Aubrey, Clyde and Rupe are unique to the 1920s, and are rarely seen today.  Similarly, Jordan, Josh, Mitchell and Jarrod are particular to the 2000s.  It is also interesting to note this century’s penchant for names that traditionally occurred mainly as surnames, such as Jordan, Mitchell, Ryan, Cameron and Heath.

So while the name Merrett might give us an indication of that family’s prowess in AFL football, the Merrett’s first names provide us with a clue of the era in which they played.  Except for Thorold – although we have eight individuals with that name in our Australian base file, he is the only AFL player ever to bear that name.  He really is one of a kind!

As for Bob and Dylan – Bob has seen greater longevity, making the Top 20 list in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, but falling out of favour in recent times.  Dylan on the other hand, while excluded from the top 20 list due to its low occurrence, has become popular and is particular to this century.

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