Unisex Baby Names Don't Stay Unisex
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.
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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.