Gender-Neutral Names: The line continues to blur

This week, Appellation Mountain’s Abby Sandel ventures into the blurry grey area of  newly discovered gender-neutral names.

It’s official! America’s favorite names are Charlotte and James. The top names for 2011 in Sweden? Alice and William. They’re classic appellations, at home across the centuries and in many languages.

They’re also clearly gendered. With apologies to Mr. Cooper, it is difficult to imagine a boy named Alice, and while actor James Marsden has a daughter called Mary James, it is tough to imagine picking James for a daughter’s first name.

Or is it? At first, it is easy to draw clear lines. Evan is a boy’s name, but Evelyn is meant for a girl. Nicola is feminine, of course, while Jordan was shamelessly stolen from our sons.

While we all have our own impressions, it often turns out that the line is blurry, or even non-existent, for many a name. This week’s top nine illustrate that uncertainty.

Micah – Congrats to Grey’s Anatomy’s Sarah Drew on the birth of her son Micah Emmanuel. The fast-rising Biblical name fits right in with Noah and Asa and Ezra, and often feels like an updated version of the enduring Michael. But Micah is related to the Old Testament Micaiah, a name with some history of use for women, too. One notable example? Among the nine Duggar daughters is JordynGrace Makiya.

Gray – Talented television surgeon Meredith Grey might be why this restrained color name is showing up on both genders lately. Now Andie McDowell is playing a character called Gray Chandler Murray on new ABC Family show Jane by Design.

Wainwright – This one doesn’t appear on many lists of names at all, but Nancy recently discovered the tale of the Canadian town of Wainwright. The settlers were inspired to christen their new home with the same name given to the first baby born in the new location, a little girl called Wainwright Marguerite. The baby, in turn, was named after William Wainwright, vice president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad, which ran past the settlement. Proof that parents have been creatively naming their children for ages.

Berlin – Speaking of place names, what do you think of Berlin? The German capital feels as valid a choice as London or Paris, but if I were guessing, I’d expect Berlin to be a boy, just like Boston. I might be wrong, though. For Real spotted this one dolled up for a daughter: Berlynn Marie.

Cedar – Another one borrowed from the birth announcements Anna found a Cedar Kate in Adelaide, Australia. When I’ve asked about Cedar before, responses have always been evenly split between those who favor it for a son and those who prefer it on a girl. Combined with Kate, I’m persuaded that the answer is either.

Jem – Number six on this week’s list comes from the boys’ side of Elea’s Bronte names post, but if you came of age in the 1980s, it is tough to hear Jem without adding “and the Holograms.” Between the animated television series and the stylish name Gemma, it is easy to buy Jem as a girl’s name. But Jem also has history as a nickname for James, as Jeremy Renner’s character in 2010 crime drama The Town reminded us.

Bowie – Musicians’ surnames, from Jagger to Lennon, have been used for children’s first names in recent years. No surprise, then, that musician Paul Weller recently named one of his newborn twin sons Bowie. Bowie’s brother is John­-Paul, as in The Beatles, as well as Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. With boys answering to Boden and Bodhi, the sound is quite current. The question is whether we’ll also meet girls named in honor of the iconic David Bowie, just as girls are called Presley and Marley.

Pfeifer – Here’s the name that inspired this post, spotted on the Nametalk forum. New baby Pfeifer Marais is here, and he’s a boy! But Pfeifer fits right in with the equally musical Harper and Piper, suggesting that Pfeifer might be a good girls’ name, too.  Of course, unless it’s a family surname, it can always be simplified to Fifer.

Fyfe Pfeifer brings us back to Grey’s Anatomy, and the children of the cast. Patrick Dempsey is dad to three, including firstborn daughter Tallulah Fyfe. In the middle spot, Fyfe really sings. Like Pfeifer, it comes from the German word for pipe, a type of small flute used in medieval music. If Finn and Flynn are top choices for boys, why not Fyfe? And yet, it sounds good for a girl, too.

Would you ever consider a potentially gender neutral name, or do you feel that it is best to stick with the Williams and Charlottes?


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26 Responses to “Gender-Neutral Names: The line continues to blur”

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AJ_Bear Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 2:07 am

I actually know someone named Berlynn, but she says it’s for some band from the 80’s, not the city. It’s unusual.

Nook of Names Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 4:13 am

Actually, back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Evelyn was considered as much a boy’s name as a girl’s, certainly in the UK (as the adoption of the surname), and I know more young Jordans in the UK than girls of the name!

There have always been unisex names — hopefully, there always will. Certainly, when it comes to names from nature or surnames, it’s my opinion that they are — and should remain — in neutral territory, to be used for a girl or boy according to personal taste, and nothing else.

lindseylikes Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 9:39 am

I was just having this conversation with my pregnant sister, who was a gender studies major and is working towards being a counselor for LGBTQ youth. She thinks gender-neutral names are awesome, and that girls should feel free to claim as many boy names as they like (she was more ambivalent towards girl names for boys). She actually said, “I love James for a girl!” Her argument was less that gender lines are blurring, but that women are still discriminated against and it would help a girl to have a neutral or “boy” name. I was so flustered that I just kept saying a version of, “But there are so many nice girls’ names that aren’t frilly! And there aren’t as many boys’ names, they should be allowed to keep theirs!” that it wasn’t until afterwards that I remembered my real argument, which is, how is it empowering for a girl to be named with the message that girls are viewed as less than boys and so she needs to trick people into thinking she’s a boy in order to get ahead? That seems like the opposite of empowering to me. (I know that there are lots of reasons for using a gender-neutral or even opposite-gender name for a baby, even down to it just being the name a person likes best; I don’t think by any means everyone has the same reason as my sister.)

Flick Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 9:59 am

I intensely dislike boys names on girls – unless the gender switching is going to go the opposite way, too. I think it’s a load of crock as to “women’s rights”, sorry. I don’t think it gets us anywhere. That being said, I get ragged on for liking traditionally male names on boys – like Morgan and Taylor. I think it’s ridiculous that it’s frowned upon for boys to have “soft names” and that girls can have increasingly masculine names. I don’t see how this makes us equal…..?

name-obsession Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 10:22 am

Don’t forget about Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird! Even if they were nicknames, talk about gender benders.
I, however, prefer to stick with the Williams and Charlottes. 🙂

vicioustrollop9 Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 12:11 pm

You say Evan is definitely a boys name, but there is Evan Rachel Wood. I think it works on girls as well!

meepallie Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 1:13 pm

This is funny, because what lindsaylikes mentions, girls being named with boys’ names so they can be more successful. My mother named my sister and I Alexandra nn Alex and Sydney. She loved that they were both gender neutral, and picked them (as she reminds us at least annually) so that when our names are seen on a list for interviews or a meeting, everyone would expect a man and in would walk “a beautiful woman.” HA. Great, mom. I understand her sentiments, but am irritated that a girl should need a boy’s name to be successful! Also, I don’t plan on working anywhere near the world of business and upscale offices so her scheme was wasted on me. My sister, who is planning on going into business, holds the same sentiments as I do.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why my kids won’t have gender-neutral names. Meep.

Abby Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 1:29 pm

@vicioustrollop9 – Exactly! I know a woman named Evan, and another named Ryan. And Nook is dead on, too – Evelyn Waugh was married to a woman named Evelyn. Blurry, blurry.

As for the gender issues, wow, there’s a lot here. I have a 3 y.o. daughter who wants to be a ninja or a pirate, so I’m guessing her slightly boyish name will work out fine. Then there’s my 7 y.o. son who objected – strongly – to having a “girly” nickname. (Aly for Alexander.) So part of it is what we choose and part of what they become …

Still, I don’t see any reason why someone called Shannon can’t be a no-nonsense army officer or a sensitive poet – regardless of gender.

kgcg31 Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I tend to like “truly” gender neutral names like Sage, Auden, and Rowan. And like Flick I prefer Morgan and Taylor on boys (Not to mention Shannon, Robin, Loren, and Mackenzie:)) But I’m one who likes “softer” names on boys; two of my favorites are Soren and Jasper. I’ve even met two toddler girls named Soren, but it’s definitely a male name in my book.
On a side note: I had a little girl named Berlin (spelled like the city) in my preschool class a few years back. I certainly see this name going to the girls side.

skizzo Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Nicola is for girls? Nicola is a male name, and even in the US, after checking out the beyond top1000, its used more on males.

Also let’s not forget Evelyn originated as a male name…

miloowen Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Because I have a so-called gender neutral name, I gave my children gender specific names. I hated that a) I had a boy’s name and b) it was perceived to be better for your literary career if you had a boy’s name.

That being said, Micah is a male prophet in the Talmud, as is Ezra. Jem in TKAM was really Jeremy Atticus Finch, not a gender neutral name, and Scout grew up to become Jean Louise (the whole point of the novel).
There are plenty of instances in my own family where girls carry on surnames — I have a niece who is Cassandra Hammett and a cousin who is Francesca Brewster, and most of my female relatives have surname middles.

And, yes, skizzo, in Canada and the UK Nicola, rather than Nicole, is the feminine for girls, even though in Italy the name is Nicola/Niccolo for boys.

Evelyn, Leslie, Ashley, Vivian, Meredith, Morgan, all of these were male surnames first before they became male first names and then female first names.

TeacherMA Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 5:18 pm

What about Jo and Laurie from Little Women? (Again nickname, but it had the same sentiment)

WaltzingMoreThanMatilda Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Don’t forget Elvis – that’s a unisex name, and before Elvis Presley, was more commonly given to girls. (I checked the records!)

Leslie was always unisex until the 1950s – I think this obsession with “girls names for girls and boys names for boys” is actually a 1950s trend. Perhaps things are beginning to return to the norm.

To answer your question though Abby, I like gender neutral names on boys, and gender-specific names for girls. Just my personal preference, not recommending it or anything!

evergreen Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 6:56 pm

I love how the lines are blurring, I believe as a society we are so caught up in ‘boy’ ‘girl’..we are all people, who cares! Call your daughter James if you want, seriously I think we need to evolve and get over it.

CharacterNamer Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 7:01 pm

Nicola? As in Nikola Tesla?
And Evelyn was a boy’s name first.

GracePheiffer Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 7:41 pm

Dear god! Please stop suggesting Fifer or any variation of. It’s just not an attractive name. And I should know. Pheiffer is my last name.

NaviZ Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Rachel on “Friends” suggested the name James for her and Ross’s baby, “but only for a girl.” After that episode aired I wondered if I’d start seeing a bunch of little girl Jameses…

CKA Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 8:38 pm

I saw a baby name announcement back in December, I think from Australia, of a boy named Evelyn Alexander.

AmandaJordan Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Wow…the picture to go along with this post is sooo creepy. lol

justme Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 10:53 pm

I live in Canada and there was a news story about a couple with a child named Storm. They lived in Toronto, and they are not revealing Storm’s gender.

Poppy528 Says:

January 23rd, 2012 at 11:32 pm

Wow this is all making my head spend and I feel a feel nauseous now!

I’m positively obsessed with the name Gray. I love it on a boy and on a girl (sounds like Grace without all the hissing on the end).

I work in a primarily female dominated profession so I’d really like to have a guy on staff. I’d be pissed if all the Finns, Jordans, and Ezras (or James?!) turned out to be ladies! Hahah

peach Says:

January 24th, 2012 at 3:26 am

I agree with LindseyLikes and Flick…gender specific names are empowering and appropriate.

kresgemart Says:

January 24th, 2012 at 10:37 am

We are torn about a name for our third child which is a girl. Avery Grace is our 4 year old girl, Isaiah Joel, is our 2 year old son… does Elliette Mae fit for our third and fina?

CKA Says:

January 24th, 2012 at 12:49 pm

With reference to what LindseyLikes sister said about being very pro boys names on girls but ambivalent to the other way around – this seems a bit hypocritical and is one of the reasons why a lot of people are so outspoken against the trend – unisex names mean the names should work on both genders, but often you see is a name being promoted as a unisex name for a girl, etc. As Flick said, it should work both ways, but society doesn’t like that idea. If you say that using a boys name on a girl makes them stronger, then does using a girl’s name on a boy make them weaker, or softer? Isn’t it sexist to say that too?

CaliRN4kids Says:

January 24th, 2012 at 1:54 pm

‘evergreen’, I think we could be best friends! 🙂 You spoke my mind! I also think that cultural lines need to blur. If I wanted to name my son Enrigue Juan Matteo, as a completely WHITE person, I should be able to do so just because I love the names! We should all be seen as PEOPLE, individuals, inhabitants of the same Earth.

brighteyes Says:

January 29th, 2012 at 9:05 am

I would definitely consider a gender neutral name. This is just my opinion, but I also think, if you use a gender neutral name in either the first or middle slot, the other name should be obviously gender specific.

I say this after having met people who have gender neutral for both first and middle.

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