Liam is set to become the new Kevin, researchers predict, as the mellifluous moniker graduates from its Irish origins and rises up baby name charts around the world.
Fewer Liams were born in the Republic of Ireland last year (334) than in Germany (an estimated 3,800), Spain (962), Sweden (760), Belgium (575) and Switzerland (443). For American baby boys, the short form of Uilliam or William has been the most popular choice for three years running, with 20,502 boys named Liam born in the US in 2019 alone.
Liams are also on the rise in Canada (third in the baby name charts) and France (11th place in 2018), yet the trend has failed to catch on in England and Wales, where the name’s popularity has dropped from its peak in the mid-1990s to 74th place.
“Some names, like Emma, are slow burners that continue to be popular around the globe,” said Gabriele Rodríguez, who works at Leipzig University’s centre for name research. “But it’s rare for a name to rise from nowhere in different parts of the world at the same time, especially if it used to be confined to one country or language.”
She added: “You could compare it to the popularity of Kevin, which went through a boom phase in the 90s and then became stigmatised as a ‘lower class’ name. Liam doesn’t have that stigma yet, but it could eventually be headed that way.”
The inspiration behind Liam-mania has been the subject of speculation among researchers. Oasis, the band fronted by Liam Gallagher, split up in 2009, while the Irish actor Liam Neeson’s box office hit Taken premiered in 2008. The last instalment in the Hunger Games film series, starring the Australian actor Liam Hemsworth, was released in 2015.
“Film and pop stars can have a delayed impact on naming patterns, as parents act on a subconscious affinity to names they developed in their teens,” said the German naming researcher Knud Bielefeld. The middle name most commonly chosen for German Liams, his research has found, is Noel.
Carla Ribeiro, from Frankfurt, told the Guardian she settled on the name Liam for her three-year-old son after watching the 2016 Oasis documentary Supersonic. “I was never particularly into Britpop, but I walked out of the cinema and I just knew that Liam was the right choice.”
Ribeiro said she knew even before watching the film that she wanted her son to have a name with few letters and starting with an L – following a trend towards “global currency” names that linguists have been observing for the last five years.
While names in this growing category are frequently borrowed from non-native traditions, said Simone Berchtold Schiestl of the University of Zurich, “euphony trumps meaning”. “Parents care less and less where a name comes from, and more and more that it sounds nice,” said the linguist.
Liam perfectly caters for an appetite for two-syllable names with soft nasal sounds where the syllable dividing line runs between two vowels: other voguish first names in recent years include Leon, Leo, Leah and Lia.
Most parents opting to call their child Liam in continental Europe today, said Berchtold Schiestl, would be unlikely to be aware of the name’s Irish heritage.
While the name is easy to pronounce in most languages, local variations that sound more like “Lee-arm” and “Lie-am” can also be heard in German-speaking countries.
Liam’s popularity could also contain the seeds of its decline. Kevin, the anglicised form of another Irish name, went through a global boom in the 90s but sharply dropped off with the start of the new millennium. One German teacher interviewed for a 2009 study described it as “not a name, but a diagnosis”.
“People started by taking names from film stars such as Kevin Costner or Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone,” said Rodríguez. “But then a name avalanches down to your local neighbourhood and once you know enough Kevins or Liams you dislike, that name can get unpopular very quickly.”