Case study: Ashtons
Ponder this historical graph, then we'll get underway. (Pink is girls born, blue is boys.)
This is a tale of one name that has traveled a rare path over the past 25 years: from male to female, and back again.
Our story begins with Ashley, an English place name and surname which enjoyed a modest vogue as a boy's name starting in the the 19th Century. It was an elegant, mildly fancified choice which sank from view by the 1930s. It might have stayed dormant with the likes of Aubrey and Emery, but Ashley got a second lease on life thanks to a character in Gone With the Wind. The name hung around and began a slow climb through the 1960s and '70s, and then came the avalanche. The name Ashley became a runaway hit...for girls.
In 1977, 2,705 American girls were named Ashley. In 1987, the number was 54,815. Along the way, some parents of boys who liked the "Ash" sound took refuge in the harder, more masculine-styled name Ashton. But then, just as with Gone With the Wind 50 years before, the Civil War came calling via Hollywood. The tv miniseries "North and South" was a huge hit in 1986, featuring a scheming belle named Ashton. Now parents seized on the name as a female variant on Ashley. Out of nowhere, it became the 267th most popular girl's name of 1986.
Parents of boys reliably turn away from names that have tipped to the girls' side. But kindred names like Austin and Peyton started to soar, and Ashton held on strong enough for a savior to arrive -- on the tv screen, naturally. A young actor named Ashton Kutcher got his big break on the sitcom "That '70s Show" starting in 1998. By 2003 he was starring in movies, hosting an MTV reality series, and dating actress Demi Moore. His name was everywhere.
Before Kutcher's first screen appearance, more girls than boys were named Ashton. Today, new male Ashtons outnumber females by 13 to 1. How's that for a tribute to a guy's manhood -- turning an entire name masculine. At least until one of the girl Ashtons of the '80s hits Hollywood.