Gender-Neutral Names: A Rising Trend With Surprisingly Deep Roots

Shakespeare’s Juliet famously observed that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Rose itself, on the other hand, is pretty unequivocal as names go: You can safely assume that a person named Rose is a girl or a woman. 

Not all names are quite so clear-cut.  In fact, gender-neutral names have been on the rise in America since the turn of the century.  There’s no single reason for this — parents have a lot of motivations for the names they choose — but the overall trend toward unisex names is unmistakable.

Ambiguous Names Aren’t a New Thing

One thing you’ll find out really quickly if you start researching baby names is that they change over time.  Some go in and out of fashion, some remain evergreen and some gain or lose cultural significance.  James, for example, was once associated with England’s royal family, then later with its opponents (the Jacobites) and now has no political connotations at all.   

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Similarly, the ties between name and gender have been flexible.  For years there have been names that were pronounced the same way for either men or women, but spelled differently.  For example Lesley, Marian and Carol were typically understood to be female, while Leslie, Marion and Carrol were male.  (John Wayne’s birth name was Marion, and iconic 70s sitcom character Archie Bunker was played by Carrol O’Connor.)

There are also a number of names that were once strongly identified as male, which — over time, or when transplanted to America — have now become identified as female.  English novelist Evelyn Waugh and American novelist Hilary Waugh were both men, for example, as was the fictional Scarlett O’Hara’s crush Ashley Wilkes, but we now think of those as girl’s names.  Similarly Dana, Kelly and Tracy were once primarily boys’ names but now are perceived more often as female. 

The Rise of Gender-Neutral Names

While ambiguous or unisex names aren’t new, their popularity certainly is.  Baby-name site Listophile routinely tracks the Social Security Administration’s database of baby names in search of trends, and one of those trends has been a sharp rise in gender-neutral names (defined as names with at least a two-thirds to one-third split between boys and girls). 

Parents in the year 2000 chose these non-gendered names 60,520 times, while in 2021 the number had risen to 108,571.  That’s just under an 80% increase over two decades (79.4%, to be precise).  That represents only about 6% of the total babies born in the U.S. in 2021, so traditionally-gendered names are still far and away the more common.  But the rise of gender-neutral names over just the past two decades is still remarkable. 

As of 2021 — the most recent year for which full data is currently available on the Social Security Administration’s baby-names database — the most popular gender-neutral name, Charlie, ranked 127th for those born female and 189th for those born male.  While Charles, a more traditionally male-gendered name, ranked 50th for boys (chosen 5,983 times) gender-neutral variant Charlie was chosen 4,217 times (2217 times for girls, and 2000 times for boys).  That works out to roughly 7 babies named Charlie for every 10 named Charles. 

Overall, 23 of the unisex names identified by Listophile made the top 500 for girls, and 20 made the top 500 for boys.  Among the latter, one name — Parker — cracked the top 100. 

Why Are Unisex Names Suddenly Hot? 

This begs the question of why non-gendered names have become a trend over the last couple of decades.  There are a lot of potential answers to that question, and in practice there’s little likelihood of it resulting from One Big Thing.  More likely it’s the accumulation of a number of smaller factors that influence some parents’ decision-making. 

One significant factor seems to be the desire to give our kids interesting or unusual names.  In 1880, the top 10 names were given to almost 1 baby in 3; by 2020 they accounted for only 7% of all babies (strikingly close to the 6% of babies given unisex names).  Celebrities may help set the example — we can all think of celebrity kids with odd names — but a lot of parents genuinely seem keen to give their kids names that are off the beaten path. 

Some parents may also feel that gender-neutral names could help deflect institutionalized sexism (or worse, misogyny) from their daughters.  Names that aren’t explicitly feminine tend to fare better in a stack of resumes, and womens’ achievements and writing are more likely to be accepted (still!) when concealed behind a gender-ambivalent name. 

This kind of thing has a long history in the literary world: George Eliot and George Sand were pseudonymous female writers and the Bronte sisters originally published under ambiguous pseudonyms.  Even in the modern day, Booker Prize-winning author A.S. Byatt chose to publish under her initials rather than her given name. 

Other potential factors in choosing a unisex name might include: 

  • An increased awareness of gender fluidity, and therefore wanting a name that keeps the child’s options open. 
  • A distaste for traditional gender roles.
  • The parents’ age: Younger parents are more inclined to non-traditional names. 

One final factor you might not consider is simply the absence of restrictive legislation in much of the U.S.  In many countries — even liberal Denmark and Iceland — unisex names are outright illegal.  In the United States, there are relatively few restrictions aside from those around names including numbers and symbols, which are relatively difficult to record and manage on computerized systems. 

Want to Give Your Child a Unisex Name? 

If you want to give your child a nongendered name, it may be best not to randomly make something up.  Completely fabricated names can come across as jarring, and can make your child (or you) the target of humor or ridicule.  There are better options, many of which are well established in the baby-name canon. 

Go international

You could pick a name from a different national tradition, for example, which doesn’t carry the same gender associations here in North America.  For example, in Russia, Nikita is a boy’s name, but in the 90s it was used for a female character in the action movie La Femme Nikita, and in the popular TV series based on the movie.  

Use a surname

“Upcycling” a surname as your child’s given name is a longstanding tradition.  Madison, Parker, Blake and Quinn are all common examples, and work equally well for boys or girls. 

Turn to geography

The movies’ Indiana Jones may be the most famous example of this strategy, but many other place names are adaptable to baby names (Madison could be interpreted as a place name, as far as that goes).  Actor Dakota Fanning and model-actor Brooklyn Decker are both examples. 

Liberate words from other contexts

In broader terms, you can take words from a range of sources and rework them as baby names.  As long as you like the sound, and it fits with your other criteria (we all have a handful of those), there’s no reason not to.

Floral names tend to be perceived as feminine, but other botanical names — like Sage, for example — aren’t.  Similarly, River and Ocean have no gender-centric connotations, and being named after a month didn’t keep actor January Jones from being successful in television. 

So let your imagination go free, and keep your eyes open.  If there’s a word that you think would work well as a name, give it some thought (and run it past friends and family, as a reality check).  If they agree that it would be a good name, then by all means run with it. 

Check published lists

If all else fails, you can always turn to baby-name lists compiled by others.  Diaper brand Pampers, popular magazine Good Housekeeping and pregnancy-themed site The Bump (to name just a few) all have lists of gender-neutral names to choose from, and there are plenty of others out there. 

Think It Through

Having a baby is one of life’s great moments, and choosing a name is part of the anticipation.  You may regard it as fun or stressful or both, but whatever your attitude to the process it deserves your time and earnest attention. 

Think it through: If you think your choice is fun or whimsical, but feedback from your friends and family is overwhelmingly otherwise, that’s something you’ll need to consider carefully.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with an unconventional name, but if it draws a double-take from almost everyone then you may have gone just a step too far. 

The point of the exercise, after all, is to give your child a name they can carry proudly and happily for their entire life. That’s the ultimate goal. 


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