Monday, April 8, 2013

On Names and Gender

Disclaimer: I understand gender normative naming may not entirely line up with my generally feminist ideas. I understand there can be larger issues at stake here, such as employers being more like to pick a male name over a female name, which is pretty unacceptable but happens all the time. I understand some of my readers chose gender neutral names or male names for their female offspring, and will thus hate me forever. So be it.

Dear #,

I'm so glad that, as crazy as your name is, your parents gave you a genderless name rather than a "boys" name. Just in case that sentence made no sense, allow me to define some terms:
  • Gendered Names are those which are strongly associated with one gender or the other, such as Deborah and Jessica for girls or Michael and Jacob for boys. These can come from a variety of sources and cultures, but most societies have names which are strongly associated with one gender or the other. 
  • Gender Neutral Names are those which have commonly been applied to either gender over the years. Great examples can be hard to find, as most seemingly Neutral names are either Transtional or Genderless. 
  • Transitional Names used to belong to one gender, but now belong to the other. In general, this transition has historically shifted from males to females. Some incredibly common "female" names, such as Ashley, were once the sole domain of Men.
  • Genderless Names are typically names which don't seem like names at all: Apple, Seven, #. Assigning traditional genders to these names doesn't make sense, at least not yet. Maybe in a generation or two there will be lots of little boy Sevens and lots of little girl Threes, similar to the Protestant methods of naming children Faith, Temperance, Vigor, or Hope. 
Now, here's the critical thing about naming a girl with a boy's name: If you go too traditional (Michael) you have to spell it funny in order to make it clear it isn't a boy, and even that doesn't always work. If you go a little bizarre, you can usually get away with it, but the more people who do it, the more likely it is for that "neutral" name to become Transitional, and for that Transitional name to become Feminine. I hate to complain, but there are virtually infinite sources for female names: Months, Flowers, Cities, Virtues, the Bible, Traditional Names, and more. Male names tend to have a harder time and fewer sources, so stealing from the existing pool is just plain mean. Let me give some real examples:

  • Taylor was ranked 51 for males in 1993. Today, it is ranked 337 for males - but 44 for females.
  • Riley was ranked 99 for males in 2002. Today it has sunk to 111, but is at 47 for females (This might be a Neutral name). 
  • Kendall was never an extremely popular boys name, reaching a peak of about 300 in the 60's... immediately after which it began to appear as a girl's name, where it now ranks 123.
Others, while statistically female through most of the current numbers we have available, actually have fairly significant history as male names.
  • Mackenzie comes from Gaelic, and literally means "Son of Kenneth." Clearly this shouldn't really be a feminine name, right
  • Madison again means "Son of Maud," but that doesn't stop people from using it.
  • Addison, surprise surprise means "Son of Adam" and mostly exists in feminine form because it sounds like Madison.
  • Tracy, believe it or not, was popularized as a male name by Charles Dickens, then later transformed into a female name in the 1940's.
There are more. Lots more. I'll probably cover more later, because the history of some of these are absolutely fantastic. For example, did you know that Clair was once a boys name? With a popularity as high as 282, it fell off the Male chart in 1965. Since then, Claire has gone from 605 for girls all the way to 50 today! Incredible!

Anyway, the moral of the story is, if too many girls are given a guys name, it ceases to be a guys name altogether. So don't do it. Go for a Feminine name. Or at least a "Neutral" name, if you can find one.


1 comment:

  1. Names don't become gender neutral magically :) They need generations of experimentation to transform.

    Now, I must ask; does the opposite happen? Are there traditionally feminine names that have become male names? Maybe that's the real problem. If a female name for a boy is considered demeaning, then maybe it isn't surprising that there are fewer and fewer strictly male names...