In 2017, there were 205 Ezras, 237 Lincolns, 137 Austins, and 107 Wyatts born in the U.S. who shared something unexpected in common: They’re girls.
These babies’ parents made a decision that thousands of their peers did in giving their newborn daughters a name that is generally considered male. According to Pamela Redmond Satran, who co-runs the baby-name website Nameberry, the past 10 years of government baby-naming data indicate “an overall radical increase in the number of girls getting these names.” She says that some parents “celebrate the idea of naming a baby girl James,” for instance, as an attempt to upset gender expectations by showing that girls can take on traits that are traditionally perceived as masculine.
What’s noticeably absent, though, is a boomlet operating in the other direction. “It’s clear from the data that boys are not being named Sue or Sarah or Elizabeth,” Satran says. Indeed, when I looked at government data myself, I found that there was a conspicuous trend: Two of the most popular boys’ names in 2017, Noah and James, were given to 170 girls and 77 girls, respectively, that year. But the number of little boys given one of 2017’s top 10 girls’ names was as low as six and no higher than 17, which is so small that it might reflect errors in birth records. (Last year, there were estimated to be about 3.85 million births in the U.S., so even the more common practice of giving girls boys’ names is far from mainstream.)
Why aren’t there more baby boys with girls’ names? The answer has to do not just with how Americans think about gender and baby names today, but with how they’ve thought about the interplay between those two things for about a century—and with how names like Ashley, Shirley, and Shannon started off thoroughly male and ended up thoroughly female.