Prepare for a baby name list like no other
It’s not easy to surprise me with baby names. This week’s data dive, though, gave me more than I bargained for.
The idea had seemed straightforward enough: I wanted to find out what unisex names looked like a century ago. The question interested me because we usually talk about unisex naming as a modern style. Traditional English names were strongly gendered in comparison to today’s creative choices. Even so, if you look deep into historical popularity charts you can find names given to both girls and boys in generations past.
What were those names? Did they differ from today’s unisex choices in meaningful ways? To find out, I searched for currently uncommon names that were given to a significant number of American boys and girls from 1880-1920, at a ratio of less than 4:1 in either direction.
The resulting list of 300-plus names floored me. It was packed with names I’d never encountered, like Cledith, Lugene and Doyne. The names were diverse in origin, style and spirit: Japanese names and Albanian names, nicknames and reverential names. Bunny and Cola, Curlee and Oval. The raw list was too much to take in. I had to narrow it down further.
First I ruled out names that changed in subsequent decades. Some, like Stacy, became so popular that we now associate them with a different time period. Others, like Sharon, became established as single-sex. I also eliminated most diminutives, like Matty, since they usually derive from different formal names for boys and girls (e.g. Matthew vs. Matilda/Margaret). Next to go were names like Deane with different pronunciations (DEEN vs. dee-AN).
And then it got subjective. Realistically, our contemporary style sense can hardly process Cledith and Lugene. I decided to cull down to names with some element that could, perhaps, appeal to a modern parent. A sound, a meaning, an aura; anything with a chance of making you stop and say, “huh, actually, that’s kind of interesting.”
I ended up with a fascinating assortment of 43 names. Stylistically they’re all over the place, from Bee to Ventura, from Kaoru to Bliss. But what emerges from the list is a sense of surprise.
Don’t rush through it. The full list has a chaotic aspect that can bounce off your fashion sense, and the individual names need time to land. For instance, I’ll bet that you have no preconceived opinion of the name Daris, for a boy or a girl. And yet it doesn’t sound like a modern invention either. Intriguing, no?
You may or may not like the names on this list, but after spending some time with them your sense of naming possibilities will be a little bit broader.
The Forgotten Unisex Names