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In A World Of Girls Named Billy, Where Are The Boys Named Sue?

And why do gender neutral names rarely stay that way?


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toddler age boy and girl

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I’ve known quite a few women and girls in my life who have names traditionally considered masculine. Charlie. Ronnie. Bobby. George. Ryan. Celebrities have joined in the gender-swapped fun as well: Mila Kunis’ daughter Wyatt, Blake Lively’s firstborn James, Jessica Simpson’s Max, and Kristen Bell’s Lincoln. It seems, in this progressive age, that parents are down for a sassy gender swapped name and I’m here for it: why let sex or gender get in the way of giving your kiddo a name you love? But... why have I never met a boy named Mary?

Shel Silverstein imagined such a scenario. In his poem “A Boy Named Sue,” made popular when Johnny Cash put it to music, the titular character laments going through life with such a feminine name, given by the father who abandoned him. Sue is constantly ridiculed, which in turn makes him grow up “quick and mean.” (Plot twist: this was his father’s intention, but it doesn’t sway Sue’s negative opinion of his girly name.) The song is fun... but why, in a land of female Georges and Maxes is it especially funny? How come a boy named Sue is hilarious but a girl named Frankie isn’t?

I wanted to dive into this trend – to take a look at the history of boy names, girl names, gender neutral names... and who gets to use them. So I popped over to the Social Security Administration (SSA) website, which keeps a running tally on the 1,000 most popular baby names (broken down by “boy names” and “girl names”) from 1900 to 2022. Here’s what I learned...

There are even plenty of examples of “boy names” becoming “girl names”... but not really the other way around

Turns out the “trend” of giving little girls boy names isn’t terribly new. Names that we now think of as distinctly (or at least overwhelmingly) feminine were once exclusively the domain of men and boys. Madison, for example, which appeared on the boy charts in 1900, didn’t assert itself as a name for girls until 1985 (thank you 1984’s Splash). Others that followed suit include

  • Meredith — boys: 1901; girls: 1910
  • Lauren — boys: 1900; girls: 1946
  • Brooke — boys: 1961; girls:1972
  • Addison — boys: 1900; girls: 1994
  • Allison — boys: 1900; girls: 1946
  • Taylor — boys: 1900; girls: 1979 (10 years before the birth of The Most Famous Taylor of All).

Even Ashley, which was listed as a boy name as early as 1901, didn’t appear on the SSA list as a girl’s name until 1964. By 1995, it had fallen off the boy chart completely, the same period in which it reached the zenith of its popularity for girls – from 1983 to 2004, Ashley remained a Top 10 name in the country. Similarly, Lauren fell off the boys list just about the same time it became most popular for girls (1989). It would appear that once a name becomes more associated with girls, it becomes less popular for boys.

“Gender neutral” names often turn into “girl” names

Looking at Google trends, interest in “gender neutral names” has gone up exponentially in the past couple of decades. As someone named Jamie, I respect and appreciate the beauty of a gender neutral name... but how do we decide what names are gender neutral?

Leslie, Vivian, and Shannon may not strike you as gender neutral names but all three were used for boys and girls at points. In fact in 1902, Leslie was actually more popular among boys than girls, ranking #85 for boys and #532 for girls. But by 1988, Leslie no longer appeared on the SSA list of boy names at all.

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, Vivian was always more popular among girls than boys, but nevertheless appeared on the SSA list for boys until 1934. Shannon remained relatively unisex for most of its use, but steadily declined for boys starting in the late-’70s before falling off the charts in 2006.

So what do all these names have in common? They, and other gender neutral names we looked at, tended to follow a pattern: they remained unisex as long as there was relative gender parity in terms of popularity between two genders. But once a name reached a certain level of popularity among girls, especially once it starts creeping into the Top 100 most popular names or higher, it declined in popularity for boys, often dropping from the SSA list completely. Remember how Shannon began to decline for boys in the late ’70s? Guess when that name experienced a meteoric rise for girls...

This generally doesn’t happen in the reverse. When a gender neutral name increases in popularity for boys – Skyler in the ’90s, for example – that name generally increases in popularity among girls as well.

Why does this happen? Could it be...

...Sexism? *dramatic crash of lightning*

I know this hypothesis has already caused some of you to just tune out completely, but hear me out: What other explanation is there?

Is it just a crazy random happenstance that all these names, once they got especially popular for girls, were forsaken by parents of little boys? And if it was totally random, how come we don’t see the same thing happening but with the genders reversed? Why is a girl with a boy name sassy, but a boy with a girl name is “sissy”? What’s wrong with being associated with women?

I’m not a scientific researcher of any stripe, but I am an intensely curious nerd who loves researching things. So I took an informal, anonymous poll among friends online and asked, “If you were considering a unisex name for your son and wound up going with something more traditionally masculine (like, maybe you thought about River but went with Mason?), please tell me about that process.”

The (admitted handful of) answers I got mostly followed a similar theme.

“I have always loved Sam/Samuel but my husband thought it was a ‘girls’ name’ and vetoed it consistently,” one replied.
“[We considered] Avery, but went with [redacted]. Avery is a family name so we definitely wanted to use it, but every other young Avery we knew was a girl,” said another.

Meanwhile, when I asked friends who considered masculine or gender neutral names for their daughters, the responses were different...

“My priority with selecting a name was that it was unique, but not difficult to pronounce or spell,” one friend told me of her daughter, Stevie, named after male relative. “No regrets!”
“The name we chose is very feminine but can be shortened to a very masculine name,” said another. “The ability to be gender ambiguous was a must for us when choosing a name because of sexism in resume review!”

Another, with a daughter named Charlie, replied simply, “Girls with boys names are cool.”

But what about boys with girl names? It seems not so much, at least not yet...

A handful of names offer us hope...

Of the several dozen names I looked into, I only found a few that appear to have (barely, if we’re being honest) bounced back from “girlification.” First on the list (because I’m biased): Jamie!

After being overwhelmingly given to baby girls from the mid-70s on, the name reached relative parity in 2020, when it was the 713th most popular name for boys and the 711th most popular name for girls. In 2022, the last year for which we have data, there were actually significantly more boys named Jamie (it reached #622) than girls (#734). (I don’t have proof, but given the proliferation of girls named Arya and Khaleesi in the 2010s, I'm not ruling out Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones as having turned the tide on this name.)

Casey is another “girl name” that briefly surpassed boys in the mid-to-late ’90s before reverting to “male supremacy.” It currently doesn’t appear in the Top 1,000 for girls but was #446 for boys in 2021. Angel very briefly achieved some degree of gender parity in the ’90s before reverting solidly back into “Team Boy” territory. I have to imagine that sprinkled here and there, a few others have defied the sexist norm.

So maybe, just maybe, there’s hope that we don’t have to see one gender as aspirational. We can cast off the idea that it’s degrading for a boy to have a name associated with women, or maybe even celebrate the idea of giving a little boy a strong, feminine name. We can return to a time of male Vivians, Merediths, and Allisons. And if that goes well, dare we dream, we may one day find a boy named Sue.

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This post originally appeared on Romper and was published September 6, 2023. This article is republished here with permission.

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