The Rise of Gender-Neutral Names Isn’t What It Seems
The desire of parents to be truly original has had a perhaps unintended effect.
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Baby names just aren’t what they used to be. You can see it these days in all the little Blakes and Emersons and Phoenixes and Robins—and if you can’t immediately tell whether I’m talking about boy or girl names, then ah, yes, that’s exactly it. When it comes to baby naming, we’re at peak androgyny.
The rise of gender-neutral names has been particularly notable in the past few years, but the shift has been a long time coming, according to Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park. In 2021, 6 percent of American babies were bestowed androgynous names, approximately five times the number in the 1880s. This is a small minority of babies born every year—obviously boy names such as Liam and obviously girl names such as Olivia still top the charts—but “anything that has changed by a factor of five in our culture is a big deal,” says Laura Wattenberg, the author of The Baby Name Wizard. The jump is big enough to make you wonder what’s going on: Could it be, as some headlines have proclaimed, that baby-name trends herald a postgender world?
The baby-naming experts are not all so convinced. Of course, some parents are deliberately choosing gender-neutral monikers, but Wattenberg thinks the larger trend is driven by something else entirely. In the past several decades, she says, “there has been a complete revolution in American naming.” If you’ve been anywhere near a playground recently, you’ve probably noticed it too: Whereas parents were once happy to let their kid be one of three Marys or two Michaels in a class, we now live in the age of the unique baby name. (Consider: Apple Martin or X Æ A-12 Musk.) Even popular names are no longer as popular. In 1880, almost a third of babies were given a top-10 name; by 2020, that number had shrunk to just 7 percent.
“Parents are actively seeking novelty,” Wattenberg says. “That means throwing away, to a large extent, traditional names that had dominated for centuries, and that means throwing away names with gender associations. When you invent a new name … you are naturally entering a more gender-neutral territory.” Cohen agrees. Many of the new names, he points out, are established surnames, such as the aforementioned Blake and Emerson, which are not strongly associated with one gender or another. Place names such as Dakota and Phoenix are now popular as androgynous names too. These are common sources of inspiration, Cohen says, because the “sweet spot” for new names are words that sound unusual as names but are also not obviously made up.
Looking at 2018 data, Wattenberg has also found, perhaps counterintuitively, that gender-neutral names are most popular in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, not in liberal states where you might expect a concentration of parents looking to defy the gender binary. In fact, her past analysis has shown that traditional and gendered names actually tend to remain most popular in those blue states. Wattenberg thinks that’s probably an artifact of age: Progressive parents tend to be older by the time they have kids. “Picture the difference between an 18-year-old mom and a 35-year-old mom,” she says. That 18-year-old mom is simply much more likely to be on top of trends, whether in clothes or TikTok memes or baby names.
Look more closely at historically androgynous names, and another stark, not-exactly-progressive gender pattern emerges: Traditionally boy names can shift to become popular for girls, but almost never the other way around. (The rare exceptions are uncommon names such as Ashton that become associated with a male celebrity.) Beginning in the mid-20th century, in fact, a whole suite of names that end in the long-e sound—Leslie, Ashley, Courtney, Hillary, Sandy, Lindsay—went from androgynous or masculine names to almost exclusively feminine names. This shift happened at the same time as new girl names ending in the long e—Tiffany, Brittany—rose in popularity, according to a paper by Charles Seguin, a sociologist at Penn State, and colleagues. In linguistics, Seguin points out, the long e is associated with the diminutive. Think about non-name words like tiny or blanky or kitty—this diminutive association has become feminized when it comes to names. It seems, Wattenberg says, that “Americans don’t like diminutive and cute names for boys anymore.”
Traditional boy nicknames that end with the long e, such as Frankie and Charlie, have also been co-opted as girl names. Charlie is, in fact, the most popular gender-neutral name in Cohen’s analysis; it’s now given to more girls than boys. (Of course, many boy Charlies are formally named Charles—including Seguin himself. Seguin, who is around 40, told me he didn’t know any girl Charlies growing up.) “Progress towards gender equality is usually about girls and women doing more masculine stuff—so women becoming doctors and lawyers is how we make progress, more than men being nurses or teachers, which is a problem,” Cohen says. “There’s sort of a limit.” In other words, there are still more girls named Charlie than boys named Sue.
On the other hand, our current crop of novel names does have less fixed gender associations. Perhaps some will continue to be popular for both boys and girls for a while; perhaps some will tip one way or the other. The only thing we can be sure of is that their popularity will likely change, as baby-name trends always do. That’s the irony of a name: It reflects what is popular at a moment in time, even as it is meant to last a lifetime.