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.
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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Great article. I’m a male named Skye Rhyly and I’ve always really liked my name. People have never mocked me, they actually find a man named Skye pretty “exotic” and different, and I like that I’m not just another Michael or John.
In my circle of friends there are guys named Courtney, Shannon, Ruby (Ruben), Kenley, Azure, Shalya, Kelsey and Misha. None of them seemed to have a problem in school either. I think its all in the attitude, kids will tease you if you are shy and an outcast, and you will get picked on whether you’re a male Sue or John – and I do remember a boy in my class named John who got teased endlessly and loads of nicknames were made for him. It’s just part of growing up. I do agree that adults are the problem, they pass their worries and prejudices to their kids, and seem to be more allergic to unisex names (especially on boys) than kids in general.
Skye is a gorgeous name … oddly enough, I think of it as a male name, while Sky is female, although of course both names are unisex.
I also know guys called Courtney and Shannon; Azure is lovely!
(I notice I am now female on the gender test thing; obviously all those exclamation marks tipped me over the edge, haha!)
Great article! I know girls named Myles, Jett, Wilkie, Jasper, Anderson, James, Neko, Rocket, Cameron Lee (nickname Coco…?), Kody, Bowie, Luka and Noa, and boys named Piper, Jaya, Milan, Arley, Kaia, Tali, Marlo (two boys named Marlo, actually!), Josey, Rilke, Raven, Brooklyn (I suppose after the Beckhams used that on their son, though, it’s not so unheard of), Ginger, and Angel (and not pronounced the Spanish way either, pronounced like an actual angel. The weirdest part about Angel’s unusual name is his older sisters’ names- Jayne and Kate).
Wow what a great collection of names, Sophia! I love that so many names can be used for both genders.
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Great post! I’m a guy named Kelly who loves his name, and encourage those who like a “unisex” name for a boy to consider it.
With your discussion on how unisex names on boys are accepted in different areas, I think that even within the U.S. there is a large variance (I’m American). From looking at statistics using Laura Wattenberg’s tools at babynamewizard.com and the SSA’s state-by-state lists, the patterns may surprise you: the region most phobic to unisex-named-boys is the Northeast (that region also shows the most disparity between boys and girls with respect to the percentage of babies given a top name, with more male conformity there). Areas like the Midwest and South, normally more conservative, actually boast more boys with unisex names (from personal experiences of myself and other name-nerds I have long theorized that). The more “sexually liberated” Western regions are neutral on unisex name usage.
I got to thinking: Many of the areas with a more laid-back attitude towards androgynous names for boys are those with lower population densities. For those who aren’t familiar with the U.S. the Northeast is the region most populous but smallest in terms of area. I’ve never been to Australia, but from what I understand apart from the big cities it’s fairly sparse in population (similar to the interior regions of North America).
The population density observation is a really interesting idea Kelly. I think parents are far more likely to use, (or perhaps the truth is, are less likely to be put off using), a unisex name for a guy (or girl) if the population density is so low that there is not much chance a child with meet someone with the same name but of the opposite gender anyway. I think this is also why you may see names in the top 300 maybe trading genders but not so much the top 100.
That’s really interesting Kelly; we do have an extremely low population density overall, but 80% of Australians live in the urban centres around the coast, so most of us are in pretty high-density areas. But I did read an article, which was rather over my head, that names become more unusual the more “pioneering” the area is, and I guess that would include unisex names too. While presumably the New England states of the US would be the least accepting of difference, as being the least “pioneering” places.
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Nook of Names said:
Excellent post – touching on two things I feel strongly about too – firstly, of course, this unisex business. I find it ludicrous that in this day and age of supposed equality between the sexes, there are those in society more obsessed with gender distinctions than ever. The only gender-crossing names I do wish wouldn’t be used are those that are grammatically incorrect (principally the -son names for girls – except Alison, of course, which is a medieval pet-form of Alice). Otherwise, especially with ex-surname names (I know the anti-unisex folk are usually anti-surnames-as-first-names too), why on earth not?
My other bugbear is the this issue of class. It is undeniably that some names do enjoy more popularity among some socio-economic groups than others, and according to educational qualifications – but so what? Nothing gives anyone the right to judge other people according to any critera – race, color, religion, sexuality, class or education – particularly when it comes to the name of a child. It is nothing more than pure, obnoxious snobbishness.
Like Chelsea, I’m not surprised you cool dudes over in Oz don’t stress about all this as much as people in the US and the UK – I often wish I’d emigrated to Australia when I had the chance!
One other point to add on the gender obsession comment. There is a double standard in that it seems more okay to use boys names on girls but not the other way around. You nearly always hear on forums any boy with THAT name would get teased to death, or beat up, etc etc. What I found from my own experience and from talking with other guys with girlish names too is that it’s not the other kids that is the problem, but rather adults (like those who make such comments). Kids are far more accepting of a name being a name, especially when younger but they pick up cues and biases from adults. I never really knew I had a “girl’s” name until a teacher decided that I did and as a result of that put me in a girl’s only group for a school trip. And then I got teased because of that, not because of my name as such.
I think you’re quite right Chelsea about it being adults who are the real worry when it comes to name bullying; they don’t seem to realise kids will see things differently.
Like when Sailor Denyer’s name was announced, older people said, “Oh like Hello Sailor? She’ll get teased!” They never stop and think whether 6 year olds will be au fait with 1970s gay references …
That would be interesting if you’d emigrated – we might have been neighbours! 🙂
I must confess I also get irritated by linguistically “wrong” names; I don’t like seeing words (including names) mangled. 😦
Excellent article and one in which I also have a vested interest, hence my first visit and first comment. You see, I am one of those guys with a “girl’s” name – Chelsea. I have several comments:
1. I totally agree with your comment about it’s not girls steaiing the names from boys, but rather the parents of boys ceding the names to the girls. I think there is almost an irrational paranoia that if a name is even used by one girl, or a girl with that name is known of in the broader social circle of the parents, i.e. they have just heard of a girl named Miles for example, then that name becomes completely unusable for a boy in their opinion. I’ve seen this lately with Sawyer where parents are worried about it “going to the girls” and being put off using it for a boy even though it ranks in the 200s for boys and not in the top 1000 for girls.
2. Your comment about Australian attitudes towards unisex names does not surprise me. I know far more guys from Aus with such names as Ashley, Brook, Kelly, Kerry, Shannon, Sean and even a Chelsea from New Zealand than say in the US or UK. But I also see cultural differences too, in that e.g. Ashley, Terry and Robin are boys names in the UK and yet tend to be seen as girls names in the US.
3. Also your analysis of the top 100 names did not surprise me. I noticed the same in regards to the top 100 names for girls and boys in the US a few months ago. Even though unisex names like Jordan, Taylor, Avery, Riley etc appear on the lists there are no names common to the top 100 names for boys in the top 100 names for girls, and vice versa. i.e. you have to go more down to the top 300 names list to start to see some common names. Which tells me that even “unisex” names are basically genderized, i.e. more common for one gender than the other. Which is what you see in forums… I want a unisex name for a girl, or I want a unisex name for a boy. Surely if the name is unisex then it’s just that and you don’t care whether it’s for a boy or girl.
4. I agree with your last comment too to some extent. I think the younger generation are less constrained by gender, the meaning of names, the history etc and just go with what they like. But I think the attitude towards boys names on girls is more relaxed than girls names on boys. That I find even more vociferous and polarized with some boys getting ever increasing uber macho names and others getting more softer/feminine names (for example someone on one forum mentioned boys named Autumn and Kayley).
I’ve never heard of Sean being anything other than a boy’s name! Is it really more commonly female in some places?
I think you are right about attitudes to genderised names becoming ever more polarised; I do notice that as well. I notice it with girls too – people tend to like either super-frilly, or “masculine” names on girls. I just wanted to end on an optimistic note! It was hopeful rather than factual.
Perhaps he’s thinking of the US gymnast http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shawn_Johnson?