Names, gender, and the not-so-subtle message



There is yet another article on baby naming called “What’s in a Name?“, by Sam Kean, at the NY Times this week (get the PDF here) – honestly, every other naming article has this title, so editors, THINK OF A NEW ONE, PLEASE. It cites work done by two members of the American Name Society (of which I am a proud member), Alleen and Don Nilsen, around the use of traditional boys’ names for girls and the subsequent drop in use for boys. Here’s a quick take on “unisex” names:

Albert Mehrabian, a psychology professor at U.C.L.A., has studied people’s blink reactions to unisex names. Take Casey. People classify male Caseys as more feminine than Johns or Jacobs and female Caseys as more masculine than Sarahs or Susans. That’s not all bad: masculine names are often associated with success, for instance, which might explain why parents historically chose androgynous names for girls. As for boys, Mehrabian says that today “some traditionally feminine characteristics may be seen as desirable in men, like caring and giving.” Given the desirability of those traits, at least for some, parents may be less shy about naming a boy Brooke, Taylor or Morgan than in previous decades, when the “feminine” connotations of those names might have come at a social cost — the potential loss of status, jobs or friends.

You know what? I don’t think so. I think that as soon as a “boy” name gets used for even a small minority of girls, it will become like unto death for a boy to have it. (In the US, anyway; I’m still amazed that there are men called Vyvyan, Hillary, and Evelyn in the UK.) This is because, for the majority of men, being confused with a woman is the worst thing that can happen. Ever. Women with “successful” (i.e., male) traits = good, while men with “other” (i.e., female) traits = bad. Are there truly unisex names, ones used equally as often for boys as for girls, in the same cultural context? I wonder.


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