Parents choose different names for boys and girls—and they choose names differently for boys and girls as well. For centuries, female names have been more creative and more subject to the shifting winds of fashion, much as female clothing has been. Male names, like male clothing, remained more conservative.
Today, this gender gap in the fundamental approach to naming children is closing fast. Boys’ names as well as girls’ are chosen as objects of style and self-expression. This shift, which says as much about the power of fashion as about gender, suggests a changing vision of what strength and success will look like in the future. It promises to shape the sound of the American population for generations to come.
A CONSERVATIVE HISTORY
Baby names have followed the vagaries of fashion since the 19th Century. Yet even as trends took hold, parents continued to name sons more conservatively than they named daughters. Specifically, they named boys more traditionally and more homogeneously. Traditionalism keeps the same names popular for generation after generation. Homogeneity concentrates naming on the mainstream choices of a community rather than stylistic risks. Together the two impulses made male names resistant to fashion, even as female names swung in and out of style.
To appreciate the traditionalism of male names, let’s start with a look back to a pre-trendiness era. In England in the 16th and 17th centuries, name preferences for both boys and girls held steadier across generations. According to research by Scott Smith-Bannister, the names John, Thomas, William, Richard and Robert were the consistent top male names in England throughout the period. For girls, a core group led by Elizabeth, Mary, Margaret, Alice and Anne remained reliably popular.
As recently as 1965, all five of the historically dominant boys’ names still ranked among the top ten for American boys. Not so for the girls.
While all of the core names from 400 years before were still in use, their roles were not the same. The girls’ names had become just five options among hundreds of popular names, while the boys’ retained their perennial place at the top. Now take a look at what has happened to the eternally favored boys’ names over the past two generations:
Except for the outlier Anne (the single most neglected classic in today’s English-speaking world), the distribution of the boys’ and girls’ names is now in the same range.
Those charts of traditionalism are based on name rankings. They don’t show how many babies actually receive a #1 or #5 name. That’s where the homogeneity of male naming comes in: the concentrated use of a small set of names. To put it simply, popular boys’ names used to be very popular. Parents largely stuck to “safe” favorites for their sons, while daughters’ names were allowed more creative leeway.
You can see the phenomenon from the first year of official US baby name stats, 1880. All the popular names of that time look traditional by today’s standards, leading with John and Mary at the top. But the top-10 name lists accounted for fully 41% of all American boys that year, compared to just 23% of girls.
Over time, the reach of the top 10 declined for both boys and girls as naming became more diverse. Later hits like Michael and Lisa, Jason and Jennifer never reached the popularity heights of John and Mary—yet the gender gap persisted. Today the gap has been entirely erased.
THE SPANISH BASTION
Even Spanish male names, which long resisted the shift away from traditionalism, are now following suit. Back in 2008, I highlighted the dramatically different styles of popular names for boys vs. girls in the heavily Hispanic state of Arizona. The top 10 boys’ names included Spanish classics like José and Luis, as well as Spanish/English standards that were especially popular with Hispanic parents such as Daniel and David. The top girls’ names leaned more toward the nationwide hits of the time like Emily, Madison, and Samantha.
Today, Arizona’s top boys and girls’ names are far more in sync, with a contemporary crossover style that’s light and lyrical. Pairs like Oliver and Evelyn, Mateo and Camila, Liam and Mia, and Sebastian and Isabella follow the same fashion cues.
You can see a similar shift in New York City, where name popularity statistics are broken down into demographic categories. In 1980, the top three names for Hispanic boys were José, Luis and David. By 2011 they were Jayden, Justin and Jacob. Even among traditional Spanish names, José and Luis had given way to the trendy hit Angel. Fashion now reigns supreme.
While this new approach to naming boys has closed a gender gap, it doesn’t necessarily mean that attitudes about gender in names have been transformed. My thoughts on the roots and significance of the changing name-gender dynamics in Part 2.