May has become one of my favorite months of the year, not only because it marks warmer weather and the end of a semester but also because it’s when the Social Security Administration releases the data on the most popular baby names for the previous year. Is that an odd thing to look forward to? Maybe, if you’re not someone who’s obsessed with studying names and the cultural patterns that guide their popularity. I’ve been researching this stuff since I was thirteen and have written several drafts of a book on the subject (mercifully never submitted — and hence rejected — for any kind of publication). I’m the kind of person who can tell you what names mean and why certain names rise and fall in popularity. I’m also the kind of person who is really fascinated by the implications of unisex names being used far more for girls than for boys.
Names switching from the boys camp to the unisex camp and then finally to the girls camp is not a new phenomenon. Evelyn, Vivian, and Jocelyn were all formerly boys’ names, and sixty years ago it have would been unthinkable that Sydney would be in the Top 50 for girls. What’s interesting is the current pace at which names that were once viewed as exclusively masculine are becoming massively popular for baby girls.
The 2008 Top 100 names for girls include seventeen names that were either formerly exclusively boys names, many of them originating as surnames: Madison, Addison, Alexis, Ashley, Taylor, Avery, Riley, Aubrey, Morgan, Sydney, Evelyn, Kimberly, Peyton, Mackenzie, Bailey, Paige, and Payton. There is no corresponding list for the Top 100 names for boys. There are a few names that overlap between the two genders (Casey, for instance), but not a single name that originated as a girls name is popular for boys. I’ve never heard of a baby boy being named Emily or Isabella or Abigail or Margaret, but I went to high school with girls named Spencer and Austin, and I have a cousin named Jourdan who grew up meeting people who expected her to be a boy because of her name.
Once names cross into the girls camp, they are usually deemed off-limits for boys. The name Ariel is one of the more notable examples of this phenomenon: prior to the release of The Little Mermaid Ariel was being used for girls but also for boys, as it is a male name in the Old Testament. I went to school with two boys named Ariel, both of whom watched their name gain an indelible association with a cartoon mermaid and tumble down the popularity charts for boys. Similarly, you will be very hard pressed to find a little boy being named Kelly or Kerry or Madison or Dominique (although my best friend’s brother-in-law is named Erin).
When names started emigrating en masse into the unisex/feminine camp in the late 1970s, the names were seen as an alternative for those parents who wanted their daughters to have names that did not immediately identify them by gender. So why is it that names go from male to female and not the other way around? There is a certain phonetic logic to this as it corresponds with notions of gender. The most popular girls names tend to be polysyllabic (Sophia, Amelia, Isabella, Natalie, Elizabeth, Jessica) while the boys names tend to have a blunter sound (Jaden/Hayden/Aidan/Kaden, Kyle, Andrew, Samuel). Many girls names end in vowels, whereas most boys names end in consonants. While there are exceptions to that rule, it generally holds that names originating for girls are viewed as more flowery and feminine and ornate, and boys names are simple and strong. A girl named Dylan won’t face any teasing from kids on the playground about having what is nominally a boys name, but a boy named Zoe would almost certainly have to deal with comments about having a ‘girly’ name.
So should we encourage parents to look to the roster of girls names for their sons just as they look to the roster of boys names for their daughters? Would a wave of baby boys named Emma force people to examine why certain names are assigned to certain genders, or would it just provoke unmitigated mockery of the boys whose names are viewed as feminine? Probably both. When I was considering names for my own son, I didn’t even consider using one of my favorite girls names like Charlotte, immediately settling on Samuel. The nickname Sammy (actually first used by BeckySharper — and it stuck), which I ended up always referring to him as, is a bit more gender-neutral, as I worked with a girl named Samantha but always called Sam or Sammy. But again, the choice was never going to be Samantha, it was going to be the definitively masculine Samuel.
My point in writing this post (which seems to have turned out a bit more dry and academic than I hoped it would be) is to underscore the difficulty in untangling societally dictated gender norms from what can be one of the most personal decisions a new parent makes. While I don’t expect to see hordes of little boys named Lucy running around playgrounds anytime soon, I will remain ever hopeful that maybe the politics of gender will ease up just enough to allow for a more even distribution of back-and-forth when names cross from one gender to another. After all — to completely mangle Shakespeare — What’s in a name? That which we call John/
By any other name (even Sarah) would still be a boy.