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
Interesting stuff. Reminded me of the Sikh community in India where all first names are gender neutral. A girl’s name is followed by ‘Kaur’ meaning princess and a boy’s name is followed by ‘Singh’ meaning lion. So Gurpreet Kaur is a girl and Gurpreet Singh is a boy. 🙂
Interestingly, I’ve known a fair number of people with names from this list. Perhaps because I live in the south, and we have a tendency toward old familiar things? I’ve known Arlyn, Byrd (as part of a double name), Dell, Emerald, Lyndell (two different people, unrelated to one another; one emphasizes the second syllable: linDALE almost), Neely (two different people, unrelated, both under 30). And I knew a Lujean: she told people her name and would say “like blue jean”.
I was happy to see one of my favorite names on the list, Adair … ☺️ I know three Adairs — all from Minnesota, but I don’t think that’s the commonality. They are all women, but one told me she often gets mail addressed to “Mr. Adair Lastname. “🥴
I hope you’ll keep writing about this name set. Would we be surprised at some of the names with a unisex history? If these are the stylish ones, what are the rest? More Clediths, please.
Lake Bell is an actress, and Lake Speed is a former NASCAR driver.
There’s definitely a -dell pattern in a few of those. Dell, Ardell, Lyndell…. With Wynne there, I’m half-expecting a Wyndell… Wendel? In any case, Dell itself seems male to me because I used to know one.
I also instantly recognized Alva as Thomas Edison’s middle name. I could see it having some resurgence, though I’d imagine Nikola to be more popular… Going off on a tangent, I suspect Tesla had a surge of popularity approximately in between when the article on The Oatmeal was published (https://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla) and when the company became well known.
Avon also is a company…
Arliss I think is/was a TV show on a premium channel? I remember seeing an Arli$$ logo. Ok, just looked it up and 1) that was not the genre I was expecting the show to be based on the name, and 2) I wasn’t expecting it to have been so long ago, either.
… Princess Vespa (Space Balls) is funnier now that I know that Vesper is a name. Though having looked up its origins, it’s an unusual name for a “Druish” princess…
Daris and Loris could almost be Larry and Doris, yet Aris seems different. I guess it depends whether it’s DARE-iss or DAHR-iss.
Definitely a lot of interesting things to unpack.
The Kaoru one is quite interesting. It reminds me of a manga where the protagonist went by the name Kaoru when presenting as masculine and Kaori when presenting as feminine (the translation I read calls the latter crossdressing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the egg cracks in a later chapter)
I know a Lake and a Bliss, men who are young grandfathers at this point and a great uncle Vern[i]al, who was born just outside this time frame of analysis. I know one Seeley under ten and a family since Lovell is a surname. So is Seeley, come to think of it. I notice lots of “word” names. It seems the parent(s) who were naming were being a little unconventional anyway since Americana mostly adhered to a naming tradition then. I would guess their time was likely not considering that it was “unisex” but a different priority to choose the Road Less Traveled (also written in that time.) Names Cola, Curly, Oval and Lugene are really painting the picture though! Incredible!