Baby Names: The gender reshuffle

Baby Names: The gender reshuffle

By Eve Newman

What actually makes a name female or male? Most names seem to have been assigned a strict gender based on previous usage, but recently more and more we are seeing boy names used for girls and girl names used for boys.  You could say this is the age of the gender reshuffle.

We make assumptions about the gender of unusual and unfamiliar names based on similarities between them and other names that are maybe more familiar to us, so many of us may take one glance at names such as the Nigerian Ajani, and add them to our girls list (due to the long ‘a’ sound in the middle and the -ee sound ending that also appear in typically ‘girly’ names such as Lana and Emily), when, if we researched a little more, we’d find out that they are typically used for boys in their native cultures. This is how ‘namenapping’ between genders starts – with names that most people are unfamiliar with. If I met a little girl named Ajani, I probably wouldn’t even give it a second thought since I’d have no strong gender assignment in my mind, but this gender swapping opens a gateway to more familiar names being used on different genders.

‘Namenapping’ isn’t a new phenomenon. If we look back, there are many names which have gradually swapped genders over time. Take Lesley, a typically male name until gradually it became used so much on girls that it became more classed as female. Now, if you heard of a Lesley, you would probably even presume that they were a woman before meeting them. This is completely down to Lesley’s phonetic make up. Like Ajani, it’s -ee sound ending instantly makes us think ‘feminine!’, since it is a classic pattern seen in so many popular girl’s names.

According to the phonetic gender score of Barry and Harper, there are many different phonetic factors that determine whether a name sounds more masculine or feminine. For example, girls’ names such as Joan and Charlotte are technically more masculine sounding since they end in hard consonant sounds and have one and two syllables. On the other end of the spectrum, boy’s name Jeremiah sounds more girly as it ends in an -ah sound and has four syllables, likening it to flowery feminine names such as Isabella.

Does this mean that we’re going to see an influx of more ‘girly sounding’ boy’s names used on girls in the future? Perhaps in 100 years Elijah and Luca and Harry will be used solely for girls –just like Lesley.

Or maybe, more and more, names will gradually just be considered unisex. Interestingly, it seems to be more feminine sounding boys’ names that are considered unisex, whether it’s the classically gender ambiguous Sacha and Ariel, or the newer and trendier Finley and Rory. In line with this, we seem to be more open to seeing typically boys’ names on girls than typically girls’ names on boys, a clear example of this being Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively’s daughter James. For sure, it caused some ripples, but after a while it just began to feel super feminist and almost normal. James is such a classic boy’s name that I can’t believe how easily it transitioned onto a girl, especially because its phonetic makeup is also very masculine. It’s hard to imagine even the masculine sounding Charlotte on a boy, let alone more feminine classics such as Amelia and Sophie.

This is just an interesting reflection of the social climate of today: our society is, on the whole, more open to the concept of gender fluidity, prompting the use of unisex names to become ever more popular. The fact that it is becoming more common for girls to wear boy’s names whilst gender swaps in reverse still seem a little odd clearly mirrors our society. There are many more girls encouraged to play with trucks and footballs than there are boys encouraged to play with dolls and makeup.

In general, though, most unisex names we see rising in popularity right now actually have origins as surnames. This may be due to our lack of gender association with them, as they have no usage history as first names. This seems to be where our unconscious awareness of the phonetic gender score comes into play most clearly as we decide which gender the names should predominantly belong to.

For example, take Ellery, a surname name that is technically unisex, but has much more usage on girls due to the girly -y ending and the ell- prefix that reminds us of the familiar Ella and Elizabeth. Similarly, unisex surname name Hendrix is used more on boys due to its links to the typically male Henry and its consonant ending, without forgetting also the influence of pop culture reference Jimi Hendrix.

Now, more than ever, we are able to play around with gender when it comes to naming. We are entering an interesting age when we can use girl names on boys, boy names on girls, and surnames as firsts on both. ‘Namenapping’ from the opposite gender has been going on quietly for years but it’s now that it is becoming more and more popular, and as we see how far this trend will go, it’s sparking a lot of debate between those who love a good gender bender, and those who prefer things to stay more traditional. What side are you on?

About the Author

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz is the co-founder of Nameberry, and co-author with Pamela Redmond of the ten baby naming books acknowledged to have revolutionized American baby naming. You can follow her personally at InstagramTwitter and Facebook. She is also the author of the highly acclaimed New York Review Books Classics novel Talk and a number of other books.