I spend far more time than I probably should on websites like Nameberry – even though I do use it mostly for naming characters when I’m working on a new story – I just really like names.
I love the stories and meanings behind names. I like hearing what made parents choose a particular name, or learning what a person’s Almost Name was, like if they had been born a boy instead of a girl or vice versa (mine would have been Steven and my daughter’s would have been Alexander, if you’re dying to know)
My personal preferences for names tends to change over time. For a long time when I was younger I was absolutely obsessed with names like Faith, Hope, Charity, etc. When it came time to name my daughter, I had a pregnancy hormone induced meltdown/temper tantrum because I hated every single (girls) name on the planet. Naming a person is hard. It’s a lot of pressure to decide what they’ll be (likely) called for the rest of their life.
One thing I’ve always really loved though is unisex or gender neutral names. Now, you could argue that any name can be unisex, in fact many of the names we now consider “girls names” were once predominantly given to boys and it’s actually considered kind of cool sometimes to give a girl a “boys name” Just look at some famous examples: Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds named their first daughter James, Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher named their daughter Wyatt, Kristen Bell & Dax Shepherd named one of their daughters Lincoln. Generally speaking, all 3 of these names would typically be considered “boys names” by many people, and it’s a bit unique, possibly even unusual for them to be given to girls, though it’s nothing knew. I’ve known many girls throughout my life with names like Ryan and Jordan. But I also have no doubt that each of these name announcements were likely met with at least some negative reactions by judgmental people who were somehow shocked and offended that someone else would give their baby girls a (gasp) BOYS NAME.
(It’s worth noting that generally speaking, these days most parents don’t break the mold in the opposite direction, and give their baby boys traditionally feminine names, which is an interesting detail and could speak to the difference in attitudes towards how more masculinity is considered more “desirable” while femininity is not, but that’s a whole other, far more complex blog post that I’m just tackling today)
So this got me thinking a bit about truly unisex names. Names that at this point in time don’t really lean in either direction. I know there has been a big uptick in recent years of parents trying to raise their children as gender neutral as possible, which obviously extends to names for many families. Parents want to avoid names that lean too far in either direction for one reason or another (again, a whole other blog post) and that can be a tricky thing to achieve. Generally speaking, I think choosing a unisex name is more effective the more unusual the name is. If it’s not something that a lot of people are used to hearing, it’s less likely there are going to be a lot of preconceived notions regarding the assumed gender for that name. Like the 3 celebrity baby names mentioned above, you can’t deny that most people likely think of those as male names. Whereas names like Shannon, Ashley and Beverly certainly all sound like girl’s names to most people but in fact they used to be commonly given to baby boys.
I think that that’s one of the things to keep in mind, names change over time. Names that were once considered unusual are now very common and names that everyone seemed to have 50 years ago are now considered names that no one would ever think to choose for their baby. (Gertrude, anyone? Although, there does seem to be somewhat of a resurgence in giving babies semi old-timey sounding names.) Also, opinions on names are varied. I might think Riley is a boys name and you might have a little girl named Riley and be adamant that it is in fact a “girls name.” Neither of us are necessarily right, or wrong, these are just our opinions. (To be completely clear, this is also just an example, I don’t necessarily think Riley is a boys name or a girls name, it’s just the first Could Be Either name that popped into my head.)
It’s also worth adding that the people we come in contact with in our lives will shape how we feel about certain names, including whether we find a name masculine or feminine. I once worked with a man named Darcy and so for me, Darcy might be a boys name even though many could argue it is in fact unisex or even a girls name, just as an example. In fact, to test this I went through one of the unisex names lists on Nameberry and for many of the names my first thought was either of someone I knew, or a famous person, or a character with that name, who may slightly skew my opinion one way or another. In general, the names where I didn’t immediately think of a specific person, were more likely for my mind at least to perceive the name as gender neutral.
Rowan, River, Emerson, Zion, Remy, and Sage, for example, were all names on the unisex list that I personally had no particular instinctive gender based opinion on at first glance. Someone else might know a troupe of kiddos with those exact names and automatically think, “No those are definitely boys/girls names!”
What all of this boils down to, is that almost any name can be gender neutral, or at least it might be at some period in time. But it’s really hard to know the future of a name. You could try to give your son the most truly gender neutral name of all time only to find when he starts kindergarten that 25% of the boys in his class had parents with the same idea and now that unisex name you were so proud of is rapidly shooting to the top of the most popular boys names list.
I think at the end of the day, the most important thing is to pick a name that you love and that you feel suits your child. Whichever direction that name leans, it might start to lean the other way in a few years time.
This article from the Atlantic, while a couple years old now is a really good look at the history behind parents giving their daughter’s more masculine names and how you just don’t see the same phenomenon the other direction as much.
This Nameberry article actually has a huge list of names that were previously most commonly boys names but crossed over and became mostly girls names, including the percentages and dates for the change. It’s an interesting read that really goes to show you how the assumed gender of a name can really change over time. You could pick the most currently gender neutral name you can think of and 40 years from now it might be at the top of the most common girls names lists. You just never know.
Leave me a comment and let me know what you thought of this blog post. What kind of names do you like best?