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Boys Named Holly, Girls Named Othello? 6 Tales of Surprisingly Unisex Names

February 19, 2020 laurawattenberg 3 Comments

Boys Named Holly, Girls Named Othello? 6 Tales of Surprisingly Unisex Names

February 19, 2020 LauraWattenberg 3 Comments
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in "To Have and Have Not"
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not

Names don’t stand still. Their natures change over time, and without an anchor like a famous bearer, a name’s past can be swept out of memory. Here are six examples of names we hear as single-sex today that were unisex in the not-so-distant past.

If you hear the name Sharon today, you probably hear a classic female name that has fallen out of fashion in recent decades. In fact, it’s anything but classic: a name that roared into a popularity then receded, all in less than two generations.

Sharon is a biblical place name, and until the 1920s it was an uncommon choice used roughly equally for girls and boys. Then it caught fire. Singer/actress Sharon Lynn (born D’Auvergne Sharon Lindsay) was one spark, and the heroine of the novel The Skyrocket by popular “girl reporter” Adela Rogers St. Johns was another. But the name’s inherent glamour to parents of the time was the fuel.

Over the half-century leading up to 1930, the name Holly was perfectly unisex, one of the most equally balanced of all names. In the half-century that followed, it was female at a rate of 100:1.

Holly’s rise as a girl’s name is often credited to the character Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but in fact the name had already climbed to hit status over the course of 25 years before that book and movie came out. The character is so indelible that it rewrote our historical memories. The true story is more about basic style. A botanical name ending in -y, rhyming with Polly and Molly, fit with girls’ rather than boys’ names in 20th-century fashion.

Chelsea is an English place name. Like many English place names, it was occasionally used as a baby name for boys and girls for generations. But unlike other place names, it hit a cultural double-whammy in 1968-69. Actress Chelsea Brown (born Lois) became the first African-American cast member on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and Joni Mitchell wrote the song Chelsea Morning, which was recorded both by Mitchell and Judy Collins. Chelsea quickly became a girls’ standard; Bill and Hillary Clinton were among the parents inspired by Chelsea Morning.

Unlike the other names on this list, Lauren didn’t start out unisex. It was simply male, a form of Laurence. Then came 1944, when Betty Joan Perske changed her name to Lauren Bacall and taught Humphrey Bogart to whistle in To Have and Have Not. Suddenly, the name was a sleek update of the female classic Laura. Since then, almost half a million American girls have been named Lauren.

And finally, two more mysterious entries:

How did the name of Shakespeare’s tragic Moorish general become an option for girls? The name has never been common for either sex, but for the first few decades of the 20th Century it was uncommon at the same level for girls and boys alike.

In case you’re wondering, census records show that the female Othellos were mostly white. And in case you’re skeptical that this might be a case of mere typos, I spot-checked some of the women from the census and confirmed that they continued to appear in other sources throughout their lives. For instance, Miss Othello Emogene Crumpton was born in 1917 in Maypearl, Texas, and married in Waco just after her 15th birthday.

The Greek titan Atlas was the ultimate strong man, bearing the whole weight of the heavens on his shoulders. His name seems an unlikely unisex choice. Yet from around 1910 to 1935 it was exactly that. The phenomenon was regional: almost all the female Atlases were white Southerners with English-sounding last names. Interestingly, there were a good number of boys named Venus in that same place and time.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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  • nedibes
    nedibes February 24, 2020 at 11:13 pm

    Lauren reminds me of Laurie. I remember reading Little Women for the first time at about age ten, and being so surprised by the male character “Laurie” Laurence. Even funnier to me was that he chose that as a more masculine option because he’d been teased about his given name, Theodore—his buddies called him “Theodora”.

  • Jamie February 26, 2020 at 11:36 am

    I wonder if a “book name” was felt to be appropriate for girls in that place and time because of its association with the activity of reading, which was increasingly (and newly) associated with femininity (quiet, indoors, emotionally driven)? The late nineteenth century was probably the peak of Shakespeare being respectable and aspirational regardless of the actual subject matter of the play, and that probably would’ve extended into the early 20th century in rural areas.
    Worth noting that Miss Crumpton’s middle name, Emogene, is a form of Imogen, another Shakespeare name (famously created by a misspelling in /Cymbeline/).

  • Jenny March 13, 2020 at 4:41 pm

    So interesting all around, but I’m particularly fascinated by the Atlas and Venus cross-over!

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