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A few days ago, Abby over at Appellation Mountain ran an excellent article on unisex names, in which she alludes to the strong emotions many people have on this issue. If you hang out on a few name forums, you’ll almost certainly come across people who are violently against gender-swapping names. Of course we all have our likes and dislikes, but for some at least, you do get the impression that they think unisex names are lower-class or a sign of poor education.

To get a local feel for this topic, I scoped out some Australian parenting sites to see how vehement we were on this issue. I’d have to say, not very. Mostly parents seemed to be pretty relaxed about it, and many were positively enthusiastic about the idea of unisex names. There did seem to be a fairly vocal group who tended to admonish parents who were too timid to use a loved name for their son out of fear it might sound “too girly”.

There could be a movement out there determined to stop “unisex names becoming girls names”, and after all, it really is up to parents. Sometimes you hear people say, “Such and such a name used to be a male name, but now girls have stolen it and it’s a female name”. Well, that’s not possible – it’s parents of boys who threw it away by refusing to use a name once it became “tainted” with femininity.

The impression you get from the more hysterical of the anti-unisex brigade is that practically every traditionally male name is being given to girls, the pool of names available to boys is shrinking alarmingly, and there is a dangerous tide of girls-with-boy-names sweeping down upon us, which will bring about some kind of naming cataclysm.

To test this theory, I had a look at the Top 100 names for boys and girls in New South Wales. If it were true, the Top 100 should be filled with girls called Henry and Benjamin, and many names should appear on both the girls and boys lists.

As far as I could tell, this nightmare scenario they envisage does not seem to have occurred. Rather than Henry and Benjamin becoming widely used as female names, the most popular names for girls seemed to be very feminine: Isabella, Chloe, Ruby, Olivia, Lily, Emily. Nor did there seem to be any lack of names for boys. There were even a couple of new names up there, such as Chase and Phoenix, suggesting that parents of boys are not completely lacking in inventiveness, as the “unisex doomsayers” seem to suggest. As some names for boys lose popularity, they can apparently find new ones to replace them.

Although there were ambiguously-gendered names on the girls list, such as Alexis, Scarlett, Madison, Paige, Mackenzie and Piper, these names have never been popular on boys, so can hardly have been said to have been “stolen”. Far from girls stamping out certain boys names, Blake, Darcy, Cameron, Bailey, Riley, Jordan, Dylan, Jayden, Cody and Luca were sitting comfortably on the male Top 100, but nowhere to be seen on the female Top 100. If there had been some sort of “battle” for these names, then the boys had been victorious.

The only name that girls seemed to have “won” is Taylor, which is on the girls list, but not on the boys. Instead, Tyler was the name of choice for boys. If boys being called Tyler instead of Taylor is your idea of Naming Hell, then yes, Armageddon has arrived. Bunker down with a crate of Georges and Adams to protect them from the onslaught, and pray for mercy upon Cooper. If you just see this as a change in fashions, then you can continue taking it easy.

Because that’s what this about: not some evil plan by parents of girls to steal all the boys names until parents of boys have only the choice of three names to call their sons, but changes in naming fashions. Parents of girls are often parents of boys as well, so it really doesn’t make sense that they would try to limit their own choice of boys names.

Some of you may be unconvinced because you can only see names going one way – from the boys to the girls. You may be wondering why boys are not being called Olivia, for example.

Well, I can’t say there’s many boys called Olivia, or girls called William either. These names are right at the top of the popularity charts, and if you want a name that will be seen as definitely male or female, I recommend the Top 10, as these will be most clearly gendered.

However, just as I know a little toddler girl called Billy, I know a baby boy called Olive. These are often the places where gender-swapping takes place – with less popular names, with nicknames, and name variants. You probably won’t see a baby boy called Ruby or Lily, but it’s not impossible you’ll meet one called Diamond or Oleander.

Anti-unisexers often complain that because of “name stealing”, good solid masculine names like Stacey and Jocelyn are no longer used on boys. They never seem to notice that there are very few baby girls called Stacey and Jocelyn any more either. Once names begin to lose popularity for boys, they sometimes get a second chance as girls names, but inevitably they sink again. Most recently, Ashley, which disappeared from the boys Top 100 in 2000, left the girls Top 100 two years ago.

When popular names like Bailey or Jayden are “poached” on behalf of girls, they are usually spelled a different way, such as Baylee or Jaedyn. Although this might bring a new kind of criticism down upon them, you can’t say they are “stealing” the names, as they obviously wish to differentiate their little girl Baylee from all the little boy Baileys. In fact there wasn’t even one name on the charts that was truly unisex – that is, used equally for both sexes.

When I look at babies born recently, I don’t see the flow of names being only one way, or unisex names only being for girls. Just in this blog, we have seen boys called Kalani Jean, Gem, Lux, Tanami, Poe and Ilo. In the past two years, I have seen baby boys called Marley, Jedda, Kaya, Ariel, Shaya, Shai, Sunny, Dee, Rio, Paris, Sky, Harper, Andrea, Sasha, Laney, Easter, Mackenzie, Ainslie, Jayne, Shelby, Suede, Jade, Jess, Brooke, Winter, Silver, Kelly, Everly, Ever, True, and Blu.

I hope that parents are becoming more confident at choosing names that are truly unisex, and more bold in choosing names for boys that have traditionally been seen as “feminine” sounding. At the very least, ideas for boys names don’t seem to be running out just yet.

NOTES
1. You’re probably thinking I have some vested interest in this topic, and you’d be correct. You see, my own name, Anna, happens to be unisex. As you can read on Mer de Nom’s entry, Anna and Erica, there was once an English male name Anna, which came from the Germanic root word for “eagle” and is therefore related to the name Arnold. I suspect it was pronounced AHN-ah rather than ANN-uh. Anyhow, I just wanted to make it clear that Anna for boys had long died out by the 18th century, when the female name Anna was introduced to Britain. We didn’t steal it!

2. I came across a site which purports to predict whether the blog you are reading is written by a man or a woman. I couldn’t resist typing in my own blog, and was given the diagnosis that the blog was very gender-neutral, but there was a 51% chance I was a man. Clearly someone called Anna with a flower as their avatar babbling about babies and celebrity gossip seems slightly blokey to them … I knew I should have gone with a pink background, curly font, and lots of exclamation marks!!!!!!

So there you go, an entry on unisex names written by someone with an androgynous name on a sexually ambiguous blog. This may be the most gender-neutral thing you read all year.

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