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Color Names for Boys: Why not?

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color names

By Nick Turner

The Quentin Tarantino movie Reservoir Dogs famously used color-themed aliases for its cast of would-be diamond thieves: Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink and Mr. White, among others.

The 1992 film became a cult favorite and the pseudonyms are now legendary. But in real life, using colors as names for boys is anything but cool.

Naming your son after a color has completely fallen out of fashion in the United States. With girls, it’s increasingly popular to pick something like Violet, Ruby or Hazel. Boys, though, have been left out of the visible spectrum.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the late 1800s, boys were awash in color names: Orange, Red, Green, Ivory and Shade all made the top 1,000 at one time or another.

Even Pink and Pinkney were relatively common for boys. (Pink ranked No. 310 in 1880, above Ruben or Douglas.)

Believe it or not, Pink is actually a variant of Patrick. Still, can you imagine someone giving that name to a boy in 2014?

More neutral colors also have had trouble catching on. I went to school with a male Blue, but that name has never cracked the top 1,000. (Alicia Silverstone’s decision to name her child Bear Blu hasn’t spurred a wave of baby Blu/Blues  though Blue is becoming a more popular middle name. And I’m leaving Blue Ivy out of this discussion since she’s a girl.)

I suspect that at least three factors are preventing male color names from making a comeback.

One is that pink itself has switched from a boy color to a girl color. Yes, you heard that right. Pink used to be for boys.

According to the Smithsonian magazine, this shift occurred as recently as the 1940s. Before that, dressing a boy in pink was perfectly acceptable.

From the Smithsonian:

A June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

Once pink ceased to be a male color, using the name for boys was nearly impossible. And preserving the masculinity of other names also was difficult.

Ivory used to be a boys’ name. Now it’s more common for girls.

That brings me to another trend: We’re far more wary these days of trying to retrieve boys’ names that have migrated to the girls’ side. Lynn, Leslie, Kim…once these names go XX-chromosome, no one tries to save them. In the old days, the same name could co-exist for males and females. (Boy-girl Leslies moved in lockstep for decades.)

Lastly, many parents may have a prejudice against nickname-sounding names. Most color names from popular culture are physical descriptors or sobriquets, not formal names.

Redd Foxx, the “Sanford and Son” star, was born John. And the real name of comedian Red Buttons was Aaron Chwatt. Even Malcolm X was known as Detroit Red. In all three cases, it was because of their reddish hair.

James Spader currently plays a globe-trotting criminal named Red Reddington in the NBC show The Blacklist. But the character’s real first name is Raymond (not that Raymond is popular either).

Parents often don’t want to give their kids a moniker that sounds informal. And colors  be they Red, White or Blu  sound like nicknames. Even former California governor Gray Davis wasn’t named that on his birth certificate. He was born Joseph Graham, and his mother called him Gray.

That brings me to the one exception in all this  a color name for boys that is surging in popularity: Grayson.

It basically didn’t exist as a first name before the 1990s. And yet it has now blasted into the top 100 and shows no signs of letting up. (The more British-style Greyson also is climbing fast.)

For today parents, Grayson is the whole package: a dash of color (if you consider gray a color), plus the air of formality.

If you like Grayson, you might also consider Graydon (Graydon Carter is the editor of Vanity Fair). The Nanny Diaries, meanwhile, had a male character named Grayer.

Grayson‘s rise might help turn plain-old Gray into more of a popular boys’ name as well. It entered the top 1,000 for the first time last year, though barely. It ranks 979th.

That said, I wish more parents would at least consider other color names. Having a few Reds and Greens in America‘s pre-K classroom would certainly liven things up. We’ve been color-blind for too long.

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About the author

Nick

Nick Turner is a writer and editor living in New York City (by way of San Francisco). He and his wife have successfully named three kids. Follow him on Twitter at @SFNick.
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