The Name That Launched a Thousand Female Sons
Androgynous names are always controversial. But right now, one group of gender-bending names is generating more than the usual heat: -son surnames names for girls.
These names have an explicitly masculine meaning, "son of," that's hard to miss. Applying them to girls drives a certain segment of the populace bananas. On Namipedia, in comments on this blog, and wherever people talk about names, you'll find harsh opinions like this:
"Sad to see that people are still giving their girls masculine boy names like Addison, Emerson, Madison etc. News flash people, the suffix 'son' literally means son. For instance, the origin of the name Addison is 'son of Adam.' These parents put as much thought into naming their girls as a toddler would in naming his hamster."
Buried beneath all the vitriol is an interesting question. Why did parents start naming their daughters "sons"?
Let's take a look at the three top examples: Madison, Addison, and Emerson. All of them feature the powerhouse combo of androgynous formal name and familiar girlish nickname. Maddie, Addy and Emmy surely take part of the credit for the female "son" boom.
Then there's the mermaid factor. When the mermaid in the 1984 movie Splash took the name Madison from a street sign, she made the name fairy-tale feminine for a generation of girls. Once Madison was a hit, Emerson and Addison could easily follow.
Even Madison, though, owes a lot to a name that blazed a trail before it, one that seldom gets credit or blame. It's a traditional female name that's not a bit controversial on its own. That name is Alison.
Alison is an old Norman French pet form of Alice. (Compare to Marion, a pet form of Marie.) It was very common in the Middle Ages; the Wife of Bath in the Canterbury Tales is one period example. The name eventually faded away in France and England, holding on only in Scotland. By the early 20th Century the name was very rare. Americans were more likely to encounter Alison in a Scottish historical novel like The Master of Ballantrae than on a living person.
In the 1940s Alison started to rise in the UK and US alike. And it kept on rising, with popularity eventually spreading to Allison and other spellings. (Allison is actually a surname of separate, unclear origin that used to be mostly masculine.)
I can't find any cultural spark to account for this comeback -- actress June Allyson doesn't quite cut it. I believe we can call it an organic style phenomenon, a traditional-but-fresh name of the time like the Scandinavian import Karen. And just as Karen paved the way for hit names like Megan and Lauren, Alison established a sound that made us ready for Madison the mermaid.
You can see the Alison influence in the rhythm of the new female -son names. Madison, Addison and Emerson all follow Alison's pattern, while most of the hot -son names for boys are two syllables (Jackson, Hudson). You can also see Alison's heirs returning the favor to their ancestor by keeping that name's sound current. The surge of new -son names has helped Alison and Allison maintain rare staying power in this age of fast fashion changes. Allison in particular has ranked in America's top 100 for an impressive 37 years running.
Allison is now the traditional choice in a contemporary genre, the one name that you, your mom and your grandma can all agree on. It's also a popular stepping stone for talking mom and grandma into Emerson. Sorry, messageboard critics. Sons just aren't as male as they used to be.