Is there a unisex style of baby names? Names that parents consistently choose without regard to gender, that are perceived in a gender-neutral way as a child goes through life?
We usually take the idea for granted. You can find thousands of lists of unisex name ideas, including one in my own Baby Name Wizard book. News headlines regularly trumpet that unisex naming is on the rise, based on the growing number of names appearing in popularity statistics for both boys and girls.
But it may be that we’re all wrong. A closer look at historical name statistics suggests that the unisex name style is an illusion: it simply doesn’t exist.
What is a Unisex Name?
More American babies receive a name that is given to both boys and girls than ever before. The rate has doubled since the 1950s. Yet that alone doesn’t mean that any names are unisex in a meaningful, ongoing way.
Perhaps we’ve just caught some of the names in mid-transition from one gender column to the other. That was the case with Lindsay in the early 1970s, briefly unisex on its path from uncommon boy’s name to popular girl’s name. Perhaps other names are still new and public opinion hasn’t yet settled on gender identifications for them—but soon will. That was the case with Jayden in the mid-1990s. Today, male Jaydens outpace female Jaydens 40:1. Or perhaps some names are just fleeting trends that will disappear before fashion has a chance to pin them down.
In each case, the unisex impression comes from looking at a single frame of a moving picture. Blink, and it’s gone. The reverse would be names that retain unisex usage and style across a moving lifetime, and those turn out to be remarkably hard to find.
The Hunt for Consistently Unisex Names
3000 names have remained in steady usage for American boys or girls from 1950 to today. Steady, in this case, means just five or more boys or girls born each year. It’s a low bar, one easily cleared by names as uncommon as Irish for girls and Serafin for boys. Of those thousands of names, only two have been consistently unisex at a ratio no greater than 3:1 in either direction: Marion and Jessie.
Marion has achieved the feat largely via neglect. The name was once popular and skewed heavily female, but it has dwindled out of use. Marion hasn’t cracked the top 1000 for boys or girls since the 20th Century, and its lingering unisex status mostly reflects the fact that parents of girls abandoned the name faster than parents of boys.
Jessie, meanwhile, is notable for being fundamentally different in male and female usage. For girls, Jessie is a nickname for Jessica. For boys, it’s an alternate spelling of the biblical name Jesse. That the two names coincide is, well, coincidence.
That’s it. That’s the entire list of reliably unisex names since 1950. Does that seem like a style to you?
A Look at Unisex Flux in Action
Zooming in on the contemporary era gives us a clearer look at how names change. Of the names that were at least modestly common and unisex in usage 20 years ago, about a third still fit that description today. In other words, a parent who chose an apparently unisex name in 2000 had a one in three chance of that name still being what they thought they were getting by the time their child hit age 20.
The reasons for individual names staying unisex, veering toward single-sex, or simply disappearing are as diverse as the names themselves. The names Ali and Angel, for instance, were pronounced and used differently for males and females, representing different cultures. The girls’ versions have fallen out of style, so the names now skew heavily male. Bailey and Riley were captured by the force that pulls -y surnames toward the girls’ side, following in the path of Lindsay, Tracy, and many more. Ashton’s usage turned strongly male thanks to celebrity Ashton Kutcher, while Kendall and Reese became more female thanks to Kendall Jenner and Reese Witherspoon. And the name Kelby is just plain gone.
The names from 2000 that have remained unisex include a number of contemporary word names and surnames, especially those like Phoenix and Armani that break from traditional English name forms. Nicknames like Frankie also show some staying power, because they can be derived from either male or female formal names. And then there are names like Jean and Robin that were once popular and strongly gendered, but have settled into a unisex “retirement.”
From the perspective of the year 2000, though, most of the trajectories were unpredictable. Consider that the formerly unisex names Quinn and Santana both became female cheerleader characters on the tv series Glee. But Quinn now skews strongly female, while Santana—despite its -a ending—is now mostly male. And what would have clued a parent of 2000 that Emerson and Rowan would continue unisex, while Payton and London would be female? Again, an actual unisex style proves elusive.
The Meaning of Today’s “Unisex Surge”
If “unisex names” are an illusory category, why do popularity statistics show that unisex naming is rising? The answer is that the seeming breakdown of gender barriers in naming is largely a side effect of a much broader shift. Over the past two generations, America has moved from a fundamentally traditional to a fundamentally creative approach to names. Parents eagerly seek novelty, originality and individuality in name choices. That novelty-seeking inevitably leads to a statistical rise in unisex usage, for the simple reason that newly created names have no pre-existing gender association.
Think of the names Phoenix and Armani. As a word/place name and designer surname without obvious gender indicators, they drew in parents of both boys and girls. But the decision to name children Phoenix and Armani rather than, say, James and Katherine is about much, much more than just gender roles. In fact, based on geographic usage patterns, the gender neutrality of creative names is not a major factor in their popularity at all.
Despite the country’s evolving ideas of gender, very few parents appear to choose names on a gender-neutral basis. Some parents of girls do deliberately seek androgynous or even masculine-sounding names, thinking they sound “stronger” or will give their daughters a competitive advantage in life. But the overwhelming majority of unisex names are chosen for a very simple reason: the parents think that particular name sounds cool. And in their minds, it fits the gender of their child.
A Shift in Thinking
It may seem like splitting hairs to argue whether changes in naming patterns amount to a “unisex style.” But the answer has consequences, both for baby-naming parents and for our understanding of our society.
If names do not stay unisex, if we cannot predict a name’s future gender balance, then every list of “25 Cool Unisex Names” is deeply misleading. Most likely, it’s actually a list of names with rapidly shifting usage. That’s no small difference to any parent who genuinely seeks a lifetime gender-free name for a child.
More broadly, headlines about American naming becoming unisex are misleading about America. They suggest a rapid evolution in attitudes, an arrival of “post-gender” thinking that simply isn’t in evidence in the name data.
It is still unheard of for boys to be given traditionally feminine names. (Imagine a girl being named James vs. a boy named Katherine.) The classically feminine -a ending is still the most popular for girls’ names, by a mile. In the realm of contemporary names, many newly created word names show exaggerated gender disparities. Words with aggressive, powerful meanings are chosen as boys’ names and pretty, cheerful meanings are chosen for girls.
In short, America’s naming impulses remain highly gender specific. Headlines about names turning unisex obscure that reality. And the idea of a unisex name is still mostly illusion.