Baby Names: The gender reshuffle

What really makes a name male or female?

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’s names used for girls and girl’s 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?

 

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16 Responses to “Baby Names: The gender reshuffle”

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Jennai Says:

August 1st, 2018 at 3:39 am

You are only giving examples of how it is “ok” for girls to use boys’ names. “[…] but recently more and more we are seeing boy’s names used for girls and girl’s names used for boys.” You haven’t proved this point.

As long as it’s still “ok” to call boys who cry weak, as long as adults think it is “ok” to tell boys: “Don’t be such a girl!”, as long as it is “ok” for girls to wear shorts but not for boys to wear skirts, as long as every GODDAMN toy in the girls’ section is colored pink but none of the boys’ toys are, you won’t hear of a boy named Anna or Emily or Charlotte or Susan or Lily.

Not as long as people take “‘girly sounding’ boy’s names” away from boys (because a name like Ajani sounds too feminine????) and use them for their daughters exclusively.

Be brave, be bold! Name your sons Lesley, Ajani, Beverly, Susan and show the world it is ok for a boy to have a name like this!

/rant over and out/

enwmn Says:

August 1st, 2018 at 3:55 am

Jennai,

I was not at all trying to say that it is not okay for boys to have girls names, I was simply stating that it is a reflection of our society that this happens much more rarely than girls being given boys names. I don’t think names should be limited to use on either gender, it’s simply up to the parents to decide, but it is interesting how the name swap only seems to go one way at the moment.
Eve

LoveOneAnother Says:

August 1st, 2018 at 7:50 am

Jennai, those female names (Anna, Emily, Lily, etc) are so phonetically feminine and so historically classic that using them for boys would be analogous to naming girls Joseph and Michael. I wouldn’t count on either happening.

I’ve heard some name enthusiasts say Aster, a form of Esther, would sound lovely on a boy. Indeed, this uncommon name is on the rise on the boys’ chart!

wandsworth Says:

August 1st, 2018 at 8:30 am

I agree with Jennai. This is all a load of mumbo jumbo until Nameberry starts putting out articles like “15 girl’s names we love for boys.”

enwmn Says:

August 1st, 2018 at 8:30 am

LoveOneAnother, I think Aster on a boy is really cool, I think -er ending names seem to be favourites when it comes to unisex names.

Bobcat108 Says:

August 1st, 2018 at 12:25 pm

I think it would be a good idea to mention that this article is written from an English language perspective. Names ending in -ee & -ay sound feminine to ears used to English, but not necessarily for other languages. I’m reminded of how JRR Tolkien stated that he translated names from Westron to English & thus Bilba became Bilbo, because in English Bilba sounded feminine (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Westron).

tfzolghadr Says:

August 1st, 2018 at 1:15 pm

Yes, this is a reflection of our society. More specifically, it’s the reflection of a gender double standard in our society. Also, James does not feel “feminist” to me on any level. It feels quite similar to Wyatt on a girl… wasn’t that Ashton Kutcher, who went on to name his son Dmitri? The use of Wyatt or James on a girl reflects this double standard… because it’s not like they’re going to name their son Scarlett.

alchemicallypurplefairy Says:

August 1st, 2018 at 6:50 pm

LoveOneAnother, they did give the example of James, and Nameberry actually does list Michael as a unisex name.

I agree with Jennai and wandsworth, they can say what they like about boys being given traditionally feminine names, but Nameberry seems to focus more on giving girls more masculine names. It reflects how society treats femininity as being inferior so frequently.

Orchid_Lover Says:

August 2nd, 2018 at 12:43 am

While we’re on this topic, could someone explain to me why under the “from the experts” section of the male Jory entry, it still says “For a girl” ? Inaccurate historically and also perpetuates the problem wandsworth and Jennai are alluding to.

JuliaKateElizabeth Says:

August 2nd, 2018 at 10:54 am

I agree with some of the other posters on this thread. I think continuing to label names as for “boys” or “girls” is really serving the gender binary and problematic in many ways. When naming a child, we are naming based on their genitalia, not on what their gender expression is, because we won’t know that until they’re older.

It’s kind of like “girls toys” vs “boys toys”…. can’t we just have toys?

Just some food for thought. I think we are at a time in history where we need to lift some of the importance we place on whether a name sounds like a “girls name” or a “boys name” just like we need to lift some of the assumptions and expectations typically associated with “boys” and “girls”… We’re all people walking the earth.

Kew Says:

August 3rd, 2018 at 8:29 am

Arguing that a name “sounds” feminine or masculine is a practice that I can’t get my head around; it’s so arbitrary! There is nothing inherently feminine or masculine about certain sounds; they just seem that way to us depending on the rules of the language that happens to have influenced our name sensibilities the most. We need to be able to see names from their original culture’s perspective, whether it’s ancient or modern, near or distant. Whether we choose to stick with the original gender of a name is another matter, but there certainly isn’t any objective sense in saying something sounds like a girls’ name rather than a boys’ name or vice versa. Or in saying that Emery is a girls’ name while Emmet is a boys’ name.

Bobcat108 Says:

August 3rd, 2018 at 3:06 pm

Kew, for me Emery is a boy’s name…because I associated it w/a male character in Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart (although it’s spelled Emory, IIRC).

I find that a lot of names that are now associated w/girls I think are masculine because the name has been used in an older book for a male character, & I’ve read way more older books than newer ones. I also find that names that are now seen as girls’ names I know as boys’ names as well…e.g., Leslie, Tracy, Shirley, Ashley, Jordan.

thorn144 Says:

August 5th, 2018 at 10:01 pm

I think the author of this article missed a key opportunity to discuss the unfair gender double standard. I agree with posters such as Jennai and tfzolghadr, among others. Naming your child “James” is in no way feminist unless you turn around and name your boy “Mary”. For the same reason that boys are taught not to play with dolls and women are treated as objects (gender inequality and the objectification of women), it is OK to give a girl a boy’s name but not the other way around – because femininity and the associated perceived weakness is shameful.

Yes, we will increasingly see boy names being used on girls. Unfortunately, separate always means unequal. Until we can get to a place where the genders are actually somewhat fluid and people are treated more equally (which I do believe will happen toward the end of our lifetimes), the name swapping will not fully go both ways. I really wish Nameberry would take a more modern and insightful approach when they do decide to address these sensitive topics.

enwmn Says:

August 6th, 2018 at 3:38 am

I did deliberately make a point of stating how as a society we seem to accept male names on girls more than female names on boys and how this mirrors the way that boys are in general still told not to be feminine, even though girls are being encouraged to be masculine. I agree that the name swaps should go both ways, but what I was saying is that at the moment they aren’t, and I was putting a focus on actual trends rather than discussing the ins and outs of the topic as a whole. Maybe the way some of you have interpreted my words is not how I meant them to be interpreted as, but sparking debate is what it’s all about. 🙂

caetano Says:

August 17th, 2018 at 7:08 pm

Nameberry has always been super hypocritical when it comes to unisex names (which for the most part are boy names borrowed by girls). You click on any of these names, and they’ll always have a paragraph on how this name sounds “much better on a girl”, how its “more popular for a girl”, or worse “dont use it on a boy”. Even when one of these names is actually more common for boys, they’ll always reference how many girls also share the name, usually with a comment like “but its rising fast as a girl name”, as if to discourage these parents from using them on boys.

For example Kimberly, traditionally masculine, this is what the supposedly “experts say”:
– For a boy, don’t you dare.

So how is nameberry encouraging the use of these unisex names for boys? They’ll aplaud any old traditional male name on a girl, whether its James or Sean, but heck, give a boy a name that used to me masculine like Lindsay, and they’ll panic and write completely shameful paragraphs on why you shouldn’t use it – heck I’m not even talking about using names like Anna or Martha here.

But then its been years since Nameberry has continuously proven to be completely biased in this subject, maybe cause the owners have daughters with masculine names, so they’ll preach what they like and just dismiss or berate those who feel the opposite.

handlion Says:

September 4th, 2018 at 11:24 pm

I’m a couple weeks late to this party, but felt like I should put in my two cents as one of the few trans users of this site. I don’t think the author of this post is really “part of the problem” here and think most of the criticism being directed at her is unwarranted. I admit I was a little disappointed when the first paragraph implied there would be more examples of the gender swap going “the other way,” and then the rest didn’t deliver (there certainly ARE examples of this, although they are far fewer and in most cases less recently “swapped”).

However, the post itself did not offer any value judgments of these trends that I could see. The author was merely remarking on the fact that the trends exist. Perhaps another post is due (whether from the same author or not) to discuss the implications of this “one-way gender street.”

On the other hand, I have to agree with caetano and some others who have pointed out the way Nameberry as a site DOES tend to be part of the problem. I love Nameberry and have used it pretty faithfully for years, but it is definitely not without its faults, and one big fault is the way it handles gender. Without getting into the fact that I once wrote a blog post on here SPECIFICALLY about choosing my own name as a trans person, only to be misgendered in the author bio at the bottom of the page (yeah… yikes)….

I have run into so many entries that are blatantly biased against not only “girl’s” names on boys, but even just total boy’s names that supposedly sound too “feminine” or even “sissy.” To get personal for a moment, this really disturbs me as a trans man as I already deal with so much harsh judgment and even aggression for being “too feminine to be a real man.” This is a very serious problem in our society that genuinely warrants alarm in my opinion. Young boys (and men) are being put at risk by the standards of masculinity placed on them, which in turn places girls and women at risk. While something as small as calling a name like Evelyn (as in Evelyn Waugh, the male classic author) “too girly” can seem harmless, I have to at least wonder if that is really the case.

Anyway. Apologies for being so wordy, and so dark. This is just one topic that’s been a worry to me for a long time.

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