Unisex Baby Names Don't Stay Unisex

Aug 18th 2016

For many parents, unisex baby names feel like a breath of fresh air. A name like Lennon or Landry steps outside the traditional name stream and can't be immediately labeled "boy" or "girl." That freedom from preconceptions is part of the name's appeal, both in style terms and in deeper dreams of a lifetime without limits. But an analysis of name stats over the past generation suggests that a balanced gender ratio is unlikely to last. Few unisex names stay unisex.


Image via Maxx-Studio/Shutterstock

I Identified all baby names in regular use 25 years ago that were "unguessably unisex." (My threshholds were at least 200 babies born in the year, and no greater than a 2:1 gender ratio in either direction). 33 names made the cut. A generation later, here's what has happened to the balanced names:

• 23 have shifted to single-sex dominated usage (11 male, 12 female).

• 10 have remained unisex.

So as a starting point, a unisex name had less than a 1 in 3 chance of remaining balanced. If you look closer, though, the numbers are even more dramatic.

Quite a few of the names that moved single-sex did so dramatically, becoming hit names for girls or boys. Every single name that remained unisex dropped in popularity. Some have essentially disappeared. Names like Loren and Codie, it turns out, weren't so much lasting unisex names as former sex-stamped hits fading out of use.

If we look just at the unisex names of 1990 that are still at least modestly popular, the stable unisex rate falls to 1 in 5. A parent who chose a unisex name in 1990 was essentially rolling the dice on the name's ultimate gender makeup. A single-sex name of either sex was a more likely outcome than an unguessably androgynous adult name.

The graph below shows the sex ratio of these names drifting over the 25-year period. The center 50% line represents names given to equal numbers of girls and boys:

          

Name styles are evolving fast, but this phenomenon doesn't seem to be fading. Looking at a more recent sample, almost half of the unisex names of just 10 years ago have already swung one way or the other.

The data suggest that unisex names as a group are a style in flux. They're a mix of new names that have yet to settle into an image or identity; older names slipping out of style; girlish respellings of passingly trendy boys' names; names in mid-transition from masculine to feminine; and a handful of lastingly unisex names.

From the point of view of the here and now, the future direction of an individual name is hard to predict. In 1990, Kirby and Avery were both uncommon androgynous names. Today Avery is a huge hit girl's name while Kirby is vanishing for both sexes. The fluid identity of unisex names also makes them particularly susceptible to celebrity influence. Ashton and Kendall were unisex in 1990, but thanks to Ashton Kutcher and Kendall Jenner, Ashton is now overwhelmingly male and Kendall overwhelmingly female. If fluidity is your goal, you'll find it a maddenly hard quality to bottle for the future.

Just to be clear, I am NOT saying everyone should choose a single-sex name. Each name choice is unique, and parents may be drawn to unisex names for many reasons. If Hollis is a family surname, if Emory is your alma mater, if Lennon is a personal hero, or if you just love the sound and meaning of Ever, those qualities are intrinsic and will never fade. Choose the name you love for all the reasons you love it. But if you're looking for androgyny for its own sake, go in with your eyes open.

 

Comments

1
August 19, 2016 11:15 AM

One thing that stood out to me from this list was Jean. I'm willing to bet that it's descent from androgyny into male territory comes from the decline of use of the English female name and the continued use of the French male name. (This opinion may be coloured by being surrounded by Jean-This and Jean-That, but Jean for French males feels as classic as names come, while Jean for females doesn't feel terribly modern, more likely to be used as a family honour than for style.)

Also, I'm wondering if the female skew of Kendall was due more to Sarah Michelle Gellar's character on All My Children than Kendall Jenner, who is a more recent personality.

2
August 19, 2016 12:34 PM

Karyn, you definitely see the "Jean phenomenon" for names from a variety of languages (e.g. Jaime, Ali). Arguably they should even be considered different names since the male and female versions are commonly pronounced differently, but it's hard to confirm that statistically.

On Kendall, that's a great point -- the girl's name took two separate leaps post-1990, first from the All My Children character and only later from Kardashian fever.

3
August 22, 2016 1:22 AM

I love how Casey is staying strong and unisex. when I was born all the children in our community were given unisex names. Mine is the only one that's held up. 

4
August 22, 2016 7:20 AM

I wonder if the most popular unisex names define an era as much as the top boy/girl names.

5
August 30, 2016 12:45 PM

I was surprised Jordan wasn't on the list as I hear that name often and equally between males and females. Also Braedon (all the spellings) which is my 20 year old son's name. I adore non gender specific names and used them naming my 6 children: Braedon, Blaire, Brooke, Baylor, Bryce and Berkeley. 

6
September 1, 2016 4:12 AM

My name was originally unisex but VERY quickly became a predominantly female name. Considering the fact that my parents were planning on naming me K/Cassidy no matter my gender, I'm glad I am female.

7
September 5, 2016 2:40 PM

After reading your children's names, I wonder if I've chosen correctly - boy, girl, girl, boy, boy, boy