Isabelle Kohn is a sex and relationships journalist, educator and consultant who, for some reason, keeps writing about livestock instead. She writes features and long-form pieces for MEL, usually without the help of Clippy.
Parents tend to be more conservative about naming baby boys. But when they do get creative, they turn them into throat-ripping action heroes
In a 2017 article for the Guardian titled “I’m No Jaxon or Albie. But a Boring Name Has Its Own Rewards,” novelist Andrew Martin weighs the pros and cons of having a common, unimaginative name. On the one hand, it’s simple and well-liked. On the other, he’s constantly confused for other people in his trade, can’t think up an original username or password for the life of him, and by his calculations would be earning “at least 20 percent more” if his name were “interesting, or even memorable.”
But alas, he’s but one drop of water in an endless ocean of other similarly named Andrews and an unfortunate byproduct of the centuries-long tradition of giving boys names so drab and quotidian that they border on the anonymous.
Meanwhile, girls can be named after any person, place or thing, and the more unique, the better. Recently, there’s been a surge in female babies being named things like Echo, Victory and Ireland, and the girls’ names coming out of Hollywood are even more flamboyant. We all know Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy, but have you met Hilary Duff’s spawn Banks Violet Bair, Cardi B’s Kulture Kiari Cephus or Kylie Jenner’s mononymous child accessory Stormi?
Whereas it’s rare to see boys with more expressive names that set them apart, it’s normal — expected, even — to see girls with names or spellings that make them stand out (lookin’ at you, Maddisyn). Laura Wattenberg, a naming expert and self-proclaimed “Baby Name Wizard” who combs through annals of Social Security Administration (SSA) data to suss out naming trends, says the most popular “unique” girls’ names in recent years have been Genesis, Serenity, Heavenly, Promise, Legacy, Treasure and Egypt. Basically, she says, if it’s a word, it can — and will be — a girl’s name.
By contrast, expressive naming practices don’t seem to apply to baby boys at all. According to research from the SSA, parents are three times more likely to give girls “unusual” names than they are boys, a phenomenon often referred to by naming experts as the “originality gap.” The result of this gap is hordes of boys named Andrew. And Greg, and Michael, and Matt, Sam, Mark, Chris and Ryan — humble, simple and inoffensive names that convey neither the expressiveness nor poetry of feminine monikers like Eden, Phoenix or Diva Muffin, the label Frank Zappa so kindly applied to his daughter.
“For most of recent history, Western boys have been given drab, biblically informed names like Brian, John or Nicholas,” says Matthew Hahn, a professor of biology and informatics at the University of Indiana who co-authored a 2003 study comparing baby name trends to evolutionary models. “In general, they’ve been nowhere near as ‘creative.’” They’ve also been extremely patriarchal — it’s an honor to be named after the (male) head honcho of your family, and first-born boys are particularly prone to being gifted with grandpa’s nominative legacy.
To Hahn, the most obvious explanation for this is that people are much more aware of the expectations around the masculinity of their male children. “They know that boys get teased a lot more by their peers, certainly about those things, and they’re afraid of making their boy child the object of derision,” he says. “No parent wants their kid to be made fun of on the playground.” In a way, he says, there’s a perceived “safety” in giving your boy a boring name.
Of course, it’s not just young boys who are bullied for having “creative” names. “Anyone who’s different in any way can be targeted,” says Barbara Coloroso, a parenting, bullying and teaching expert who specializes in nonviolent conflict resolution. “It’s girls, kids from a different country or culture or anyone whose name sets them apart.” Though, she admits, she has seen plenty of boys get picked on for having unusual or feminine names. “There does seem to be a lot less variation in boys’ names, especially in white, more middle-class areas.”
But that’s all changing. According Wattenberg, a new breed of rugged, hyper-macho and blatantly “action-oriented” names for boys has exploded in popularity in recent years, and their inventiveness is starting to match the creativity and expressiveness that girls names have always enjoyed. Combing through pages of recent Social Security Administration data, she found that the usage of “doer” names like Racer, Trooper and Charger have risen more than 1,000 percent between 1980 and 2000, and have increased exponentially ever since.
In a 2019 Namerology article on the topic, she lists several of the burlier, more aggressive names that have been picking up steam: Angler, Camper, Tracker, Trapper, Catcher, Driver, Fielder, Racer, Sailor, Striker, Wheeler — deep breath — Breaker, Roper, Trotter, Wrangler — still going — Lancer, Shooter, Slayer, Soldier, Tracer, Trooper — wait, “Slayer”? — Blazer, Brewer, Charger, Dodger, Laker, Pacer, Packer, Raider, Ranger, Steeler, Warrior — kill me — Dreamer, Jester and — wait for it — Rocker.
The majority of these names take inspiration from stereotypically “masculine” interests, but while they might seem modern — no one’s grandpa is named Rocker — they’re actually not. According to Wattenberg, these hyper-masculine boys’ names were spawned from the primordial ooze of 1990s-era Britain during a time she calls the “great surname boom.”
Whereas most surnames were family names passed down through generations, the boom inspired Brits to start DIY-ing their own last names, and it was the snappier ones — particularly ones ending in “-er” — that became popular, in part due to how “active” they sounded. Most of the “doer” names started out as obsolete occupational names like Tucker or Spenser, but a few, like Hunter and Rider (which, it should be pointed out, are the first names of Guy Fieri’s sons) packed the punch of what she calls a more “energetic avocation.”
“The result,” she writes, “was a two-fer.” You got the zippy style of a self-made surname and the roundhouse throat-punch of a vigorous action-name, a killer combo which sent the popularity of brawny last names like Saylor and Stryker soaring. Eventually, she says, last names became first names, and soon, any doer name became fair game, especially for boys. And though they’d previously been conservative and biblical in their naming habits, parents began naming their wriggly, fat-headed little boy babies after pretty much anything you’d see during a Super Bowl halftime commercial: rugged SUVs, lethal combat positions, and you guessed it, condoms (apparently, the names “Magnum” and “Maxx” are gaining popularity, the extra “x” in the latter signifying a next-level extremeness never before seen in tiny, blubbering male humanoids too young and cartilaginous to understand just how much extra beer that means they’re going to have to shotgun at parties).
For today’s parents, it seems the more aggressive and bloodthirsty the name, the better. Wattenberg’s research found that 47 boys were named “Raider” in 2018, and “Hunter” tops the brawny baby charts as the country’s most popular hypermasculine name. According to Hahn, names like these give parents a way to be creative without breaking the masculinity mold. They’re expressive, vivid and undeniably unique, but they’re also pulsating with testosterone and so certifiably burly that he suspects some parents are using them as anti-bullying shields. “Who’s going to make fun of Striker?” he says. By the same token, names like “Shooter,” “Gunner” or “Slayer” seem particularly resistant to playground taunting.
Wattenberg agrees that this might be intentional. “When parents choose names that sound like an automatic weapon, a condom or a skateboard, they’re saying something about who they hope their child becomes,” says Wattenberg. “Judging by some of the names I’ve been seeing, they want an action hero.” The practice of naming a kid based on who you hope they become falls under the umbrella of what’s called nominative determinism, a hypothesis that examines the degree to which someone’s name influences the course they take in life. Though there’s limited evidence that names dictate reality — i.e., not all Bakers are bakers — Hahn suspects that many parents name their children with the subconscious hope that they live up to their name, but without thinking about the effect that’ll have on them as they mature. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on kids,” he says. “Imagine being named Racer. You could never get away with being slow!”
It’s also possible, he says, that the action-name trend for boys is a backlash to the evolving definition of masculinity. As the concept of masculinity evolves into something more dynamic, personal and sensitive than the John Wayne stereotype of the past, groups of conservationist parents are staking a claim on the increasingly endangered species of traditional manhood by naming their children after the most stereotypically masculine things possible. “It could be a backlash to changing norms around what it means to be a man, and a staking of a position about masculinity and traditional values,” he suggests.
In any case, there’s little question about the message that these Vin Diesel-y boys’ names send: It’s okay for females to be expressive, unique and even androgynous, but it’s only okay for males to be so if what they’re expressing is brute-force testosterone that rains down from the heavens while a muscle-y football player shreds out Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” on an electric guitar in front of a massive poster of tits and ice-cold beer. So even though boys names have become light-years more expressive than they used to be, they’re still upholding the aggressive, active and power-based ideals of traditional masculinity, perhaps even more so than the wearisome but undeniably guy-flavored “Andrew.”
Coloroso’s not timid about how far-reaching an effect she believes this can have. “The impact of how much linguistics, semantics and names can influence beliefs and behaviors can’t be understated,” she says. “When you start to categorize names as either masculine or feminine, or you give a child a name that can only be one of those things, what you’re really doing is reinforcing gender stereotypes,” she says. “That’s a slippery slope. Stereotyping can lead to prejudice, which can, in turn, lead to intolerance, bigotry and hate.”
This isn’t just true for masculine and feminine-sounding names, of course: Any name that falls outside the range of what’s “normal” for white, middle-class America can be used as a tool to otherize and promote hate. Ethnic names are particularly subject to this, and as Coloroso notes in her upcoming book about genocide — an admitted topical stretch for a parenting and early education expert — it’s a “short walk” from hateful rhetoric to tragedy.
That’s not to say parents who dub their kid “Trooper” are intentionally propagating gender roles — or more broadly, bigotry — with their macho name choices, though. It’s doubtful they even breach that territory when thinking about names; they’re likely just trying to think of something familiar and fun. “The kind of parents that name their son ‘Magnum’ aren’t necessarily reacting to philosophical shifts or trends in gender roles,” Wattenberg says. “The names parents choose are usually just a reflection of their culture and values.” Still, it’s interesting to note how those choices both reflect and enforce the norms that confine people to a limited style of expression.
At the same time, it would be remiss not to note the bajillions of exceptions to this trend. While baby names can be indicative of larger cultural beliefs and social systems that promote stereotypes and inequality, they’re not necessarily prescriptive on an individual level. You can be named Charger, and turn out to be a gentle, Prius-driving, gender anarchist. At the same time, you can have a dull-boy name like Greg and be the most creative, expressive person in your hemisphere. And you can be named Crescent Bongwater and have the personality of an expired Saltine cracker.
It’s less about the name itself and more about who wears it. But still, here’s to hoping all the “Slayers” of the world don’t live up to theirs.