When Does a Name Become Androgynous?

Jun 17th 2010

Countless names are borne by both boys and girls. You have your contemporary inventions (Daylin), your surnames (Kerry), your nickames (Alex). No problem, we can all play nicely together. But other names keep a "single sex" identity despite some opposite-sex usage. The existence of '70s tv actress Michael Learned, for instance, wasn't enough to keep Michael from sounding solidly masculine.

Recently, the androgyny floodgates have opened on male names ending in a vowel sound. There are now more female Rileys born than males, and the masculine biblical name Micah is a fixture on the girls' top 1000 list. As an impartial name observer, you have to call both of those names androgynous today. (Moms of male Rileys, please don't shoot the messenger.) But where do you draw the line and declare a name unisex in usage?

This isn't mere philosophical musing for me. I have practical decisions to make. In the past week, users have submitted the girls' names Ezra, Luca, Luka and Levi to Namipedia. I now have to decide which to let stay, if any.

You could say "Why not just let 'em all stay? What's the harm?" But Namipedia is selective for a reason. The goal is for every single page to be useful or informative for name searchers. Randomly tossing in boy names under the girl's heading or vice versa doesn't seem useful or informative. If anything, it's spreading disinformation: declaring a name that 99% of people consider single-sex to be unisex.

Here's some background on the four names in question. All four are masculine biblical classics. All four end in vowels. All four have been bestowed on dozens of American baby girls...but none come close to cracking the top 1000 girls' names.

The most common feminine choice of the four names, Ezra, ranks #2,207 on the girl's chart. That's in-between land, with some obscure variant names like Naomy and Jazzlynn and some familiar but out-of-fashion names like Michele and Jennie. The least common, Luka, ranks in the 6000s in a tie with hundreds of names like Serenitee, Zulay and Krislynn. (Keep in mind that the mere fact that some people somewhere bear a name isn't sufficient to earn a name a Namipedia page. If it were, the list of Madeline spellings alone would be endless.)

So how would you make the Namipedia decision? Percentages? Micah is only 9% female, but it has ranked among the top 1000 girls' names for 30 years straight. A raw number cutoff? One complicating factor is that a tiny fraction of babies always get checked off in the wrong sex column. That means that the more popular the boy's name is, the more mistakes will end up in the girl's column. (And an -a ending might make data entry mistakes more likely.)

So the criteria might have to be subtler than that. What would you do? I'm all ears.


By Aster_poet (not verified)
July 22, 2010 1:49 AM

My four month old daughter's name is Kaitlin Elijah, so I have no problem with using biblical male names as female. But, I chose Elijah specifically because it was male. I wouldn't really want to see it listed as a female name it would ruin all the associations with the name.ny

July 25, 2010 5:23 PM

Call me a conservative stick-in-the-mud, but I don't care for many "androgynous" names used today. Those in this category that I do enjoy, I assign a gender based on association with the name throughout my life. Taylor and Hayden are male. Ashley, though traditionally male is female.

Therefore, names which are historically of one gender should stay that way. Some things should not be altered to accommodate the time. Michael, Ezra, and Levi are male names. End of story. We women have countless beautiful names, why are some choosing to usurp male names to thrust upon their daughters? To make some sort of feminist statement? Please. Or worse... because they really wanted a son? Gag. Girls, it's OK to be girls.

By Guest (not verified)
August 15, 2010 10:50 AM

When does pop culture come in to play?

We have Suzanne Vega's Luka who felt (growing up with the song, I always thought it was a girl's name):

"I like the name Luka, it’s universal. It could be a girl or boy and it could be any nationality.”

source: http://measureformeasure.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/18/surviving-the-hits/

By MarissaM (not verified)
August 16, 2010 3:28 PM

I just found your blog, and I love it, keep it up!

By the way, I always liked the name Kylee (or Kylie) for a girl, and recently I met a guy with that name, lol!

By worshipbits (not verified)
August 20, 2010 8:13 AM

I do think the amount of time a name has been in use has to be factored in. For example, Micah has been a solidly male name for thousands of years. It seems to me that the great majority of people will never think of that as a girls name even if there are a few decades when a tiny minority of people use it as a girl's name. However, if a modern name, for example River, started swinging to the girls' side, I don't think the great masses would have a hard time accepting it.

By EviePricex (not verified)
October 6, 2010 2:57 PM

If a line has to be drawn, though, where does it get drawn? 'Allison', for example, was originally a surname meaning 'Alice's son' - but at some point people must have decided that it worked as a girl's name in spite of the obviously masculine origin behind it.

I suspect this debate has always existed. In time no-one will care.

By Wardmoore (not verified)
April 23, 2012 7:47 PM


My name is Loutrecia.  My grandmother died a long time ago, and it was a family name, but no one knows what it means.  Does your mom know the origin of "Loutricia"?