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Kelly, Mackenzie, and Clare: Great reclaimed names for boys

January 15, 2015 Abby Sandel

By Abby Sandel, Appellation Mountain

Girls have been borrowing from boys’ names for generations. Shirley and Ashley were once more common for men. Ditto Madison, Avery, and Harper.

It’s easy to fume about name theft. After all, conventional wisdom is that once a name is widely used for our daughters, it cannot be given to our sons.

The truth is messier. Consider:– Sometimes the “stolen” name was actually languishing, forgotten, until parents revived it for girls. Fewer than two dozen boys were named Madison the year Splash was released.

– Not every name used for some girls becomes exclusively used for girls. Cameron has remained mostly masculine, despite high profile women, like Cameron Diaz and Camryn Manheim, making it feel like a unisex possibility.

– Bailey, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly female today – but then, this name was actually very popular for girls when parents started considering it for their sons.

– Other names battle it out, becoming popular for both genders for a few years until it becomes clear that the name will be mostly given to girls or boys. Odds are you know a 40-something guy called Shannon, Ashley, or Courtney.

But the newest phenomenon is the most exciting: in recent years, names have held steady for both genders, suggesting that Americans are willing to embrace names that are truly gender neutral. Think of Rowan, Peyton, and Riley.

And why not? Taylor Lautner dated Taylor Swift, and the Earth continued to rotate. Schools have had Jordan (boy), Jordan (girl), and Jordyn (girl) in the same grade, and it wasn’t any more confusing than the 1980s, when every third girl answered to Jennifer.

So what’s the logical next step?

Truly daring namers are taking back names that have been claimed for Team Pink, and using them for their sons.

Here are some of the most promising candidates for reclaiming:

Sasha Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky welcomed twin sons in 2014. Their new additions have romantic names – Tristan and Sasha. Sasha is traditionally an affectionate form of Alexander in Russian, but in the US, Sasha has long trended girl. First Daughter Natasha Obama answers to Sasha, and Beyonce’s alter ego is Sasha Fierce. This was a bold move by Pataky and Hemsworth – but hey, if your dad is Thor, do you really have to worry about playground teasing?

Kelly – Pro surfer Kelly Slater was born Robert Kelly Slater in 1972, around the same time lots of parents were embracing the Irish surname name for their daughters. Actress Holly Marie Combs has three young sons: Finley Arthur, Riley Edward, and Kelley James. Finley, Riley, Kelley – on that list, Kelly fits right in, a logical Irish choice for a son.

Madison – A boy named Madison? Maybe. Baseball’s Madison Baumgartner, pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, was named World Series MVP in 2014. Yes, nine out of ten current Madisons are girls – but with options like Maddox and Madden trending for our sons, it is easy to imagine Madison on a boy.

Mackenzie – The Scottish surname is still in the girls’ Top 100, inspiring spin-offs like Kenzie and McKinley. But child actor Mackenzie Astin reminds us that this name has potential for boys, too. Nickname Mac fits right in with Jack and Gus.

Kendall – With Kardashian sibling Kendall Jenner in the spotlight, it’s a safe bet that Kendall hasn’t quite peaked for girls. But isn’t any Ken– name wearable for a boy? Kenneth, Kendrick, Kendall – on sound alone, Kendall seems like an easy sell for a son.

Kennedy – In the 1960s, Kennedy was a hero name, given in honor of President John F. Since the 1990s, Kennedy has been a trendy surname possibility, far more popular for girls. Between the late president and the many places named in his honor – Harvard’s Kennedy School, the Kennedy Space Center, Washington DC’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – this name screams accomplishment, whether you’re naming a daughter or a son.

Alexis – Like Sasha, Alexis is a cousin to Alexander, worn by emperors and saints. Alexis was huge for girls – thank you, Dynasty! But this name had a good run for boys, too, hovering in the mid-100s while it was a girls’ Top Ten staple. Today, Alexis is fading for both genders, but it could still feel fresh and interesting for a boy.

Avery – The 2015 version of Alexis? It has to be Avery. Yes, Avery is huge for girls. But Avery remains in the boys’ Top 200 as of 2013. With a very long history of masculine use, parents seem willing to continue using Avery for their boys – even if their female classmates might have the same name.

Bailey – At first glance, it looks like girls really did steal Bailey. But in fact, Bailey barely used at all in the 1970s, with fewer than two dozen births a year. Parents embraced Bailey as a Kaylee/Hailey spin-off … and only then did the name also catch on for boys. Today, Bailey remains just outside of the girls’ Top 100, but is rare for boys. But if Bentley and Brantley are big for boys, why not Bailey?

Quinn – Here’s a clear case of a name threatening to go girl. From the 1960s onward, Quinn was a great Irish surname name for a boy. In the 1990s, parents added it to their shortlists for a girl. Then came Glee, with its teenage sweethearts Finn (boy, football player) and Quinn (girl, cheerleader). Suddenly, Quinn surged for girls, and floundered for boys. But if Finn and Flynn and stylish boys’ names, there’s no reason to take this off Team Blue.

Cary Long before handsome Hollywood hopeful Archibald Leach changed his name to Cary Grant, Cary had been a boys’ name. Carey, too. Both spellings are forms of an Irish surname related to the given name Ciar – dark.   Both spellings have also always been more popular for boys. Only recently, with the rise of Carrie and Kari for girls did Cary and Carey become unwearable for boys. Look no further than Cary Elwes to imagine how well the name could wear on a boy today.

Clare – In every spelling – Clare, Claire, and Clair – this name has a long history of use as a masculine name. That’s probably because it is a common surname with several possible origins. The best case for using Clare for a boy? Probably the surname, as in early Anglo-Norman leader Richard de Clare, better known by his nickname, Strongbow. It’s also a place name in Suffolk, where the de Clare family held property. In an age of Chase, Clark, and Crew, why not Clare?

Sidney – Spelled Sydney, this name was a fixture for girls. Sydney was Jennifer Garner’s fearless character on Alias. Neve Campbell wore the name in Scream. Now that Sydney is fading for girls, can we reclaim Sidney – and the great nickname Sid – for our sons?

Are there any “girl” names that you would consider for a son? What’s missing from this list?

About the author

Abby

Abby Sandel is nameberry's Senior Editor and resident Name Sage. Look for her baby name news round-ups every Monday, and her Name Sage columns on Wednesdays. Abby is the creator of the baby name blog Appellation Mountain and mom to Alex and Clio. For a chance to have your questions answered, contact Abby at namesage@nameberry.com.

View all of Abby's articles

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