We're Naming Boys "Power" and Girls "Happiness"

Oct 17th 2018

Boys should be powerful, furiously aggressive, and revered.

Girls should be pretty, happy, cherished and indulged.

That's the message American parents are sending with their baby name choices, based on a BabyNameWizard.com analysis of modern “word names.”

Photos: Getty Images

Word-based baby names like Thunder or Empress offer a unique window onto our culture, because they're the clearest signals in the usually complex realm of names. Every name from Aaron to Zora has its own place in our social world and sends its own messages. In most cases, though, those messages are hard to pin down. Not with a modern word name. When parents name a child Thunder or Empress, you have a clear idea of what image they want the name to project and what dream it embodies. The signals are spelled out before you.

That makes word names, and particularly new word-name trends, a stark barometer of cultural values and attitudes. In generations past, they followed predictable lines. Most of the familiar, traditional word names were given to girls, and celebrated either virtue (e.g. Patience and Faith) or natural beauty as an embodiment of the feminine ideal (Pearl, Violet). The late 20th Century updated the theme with some splashier and more diverse choices (Crystal, Ebony, Destiny), but the basic form mostly held true.

Then in the 21st Century, word names blew wide open. A revolution in baby naming obliterated the boundaries that used to restrain parents' choices. Over the past generation, baby namers have largely turned away from the old standard names in pursuit of impact and novelty. Word names are a rich source of both, and this time, nature and virtues are just the beginning. Any appealing word is fair game—for girls and boys alike.

This wave of new word names has entered a new world, one with a dramatically different conception of gender roles compared to eras past. One might expect, then, that the new names would break the mold of traditional gender stereotypes. One would be wrong. In fact, many parents are using their new creative freedom to push the old-fashioned images of "girl" and "boy" to new extremes.

A Close Look at the New Names
I reviewed tens of thousands of new, current names and identified 531 that appeared to be borrowed directly from common English words. Together, these word names were given to almost 30,000 American babies last year. (A name was considered "new" if it was scarce to non-existent in the 100 years before 1980, and was given to at least five boys or girls last year. Click to read more details about the study methodology.)

I coded the word names with 28 general categories of meaning, from "Colors" to “Courage," weighted for closeness of fit. Out of those 28 meaning categories, 11 leaned overwhelmingly (over 80%) toward one gender. Take a look at them:

Overwhelmingly Male Name Meanings: Power/Toughness, Furor, Exaltation/Praise, Speed, Animals, Military/Weapons

Overwhelmingly Female Name Meanings: Joy, Luxury, Love, Ethereal/Mystical, Beauty, Music

New names exclusive to girls include Allure, Paradise, Pristine, Lace, Happiness, Couture, Heiress, Fantasia, Tulip, Gracious, and Gorgeous.

New names exclusive to boys include Savage, Clash, Diesel, Thunder, Champion, Almighty, Chaos, Trigger, Danger, Power, and Rage.

Such new, eye-catching word names make up only a modest slice of America's total naming culture. But it's a growing slice, and a relatively diverse one. Pairs of siblings named Indigo and Fable, Trigger and Trooper, and Majesty and Messiah are likely to represent families of very different backgrounds and communities. And as strong signals, they both reveal and influence the cultures of those communities.

A strongly styled word name is more than just a fashion choice. It can shape a person's entire experience of the social world. Imagine meeting a person named Savage compared to a person named Tulip, or seeing each of those names on an email, or a resume, or a Tinder profile. The name creates a bubble of responses and expectations that will surround the bearer throughout life.

It also, of course, sends a message of values and expectations to the child herself/himself. We're looking at what thousands of girls and boys are told to be from the moment they take their first breaths.

Here's the complete table of word-name styles with their gender ratios: 

Power/ Toughness
Diesel, Titan, Power, Wrangler 97%
Riot, Crash, Savage, Rage 94%
Supreme, Amazing, Messiah, Prodigy 88%
Dash, Blaze, Racer, Rocket 88%
Bear, Talon, Lynx, Hawk 87%
Military/ Weapons
Cannon, Blade, Legion, Warrior 83%
Bravery, Valor, Brazen, Hero 75%
Summit, Champion, Winner, Victorious 71%
Canyon, Ocean, Granite, North 66%
Truth/ Wisdom
Truth, Wisdom, Sincere, Logic 65%
Oak, Timber, Cypress, Alder 65%
Prophet, Blessing, Savior, Prayer 62%
Seven, Million, Billion, Infinity 60%
Fable, Poet, Legend, Saga 57%
Royalty, Sire, Empress, Pharaoh 56%
Inspiration/ Potential              
Journey, Believe, Future, Purpose 44%
Crimson, Indigo, Roan, Cobalt 39%
Loyalty, Gracious, Faithful, Goodness 37%
Peace/ Harmony
Solace, Unity, Harbor, Comfort 28%
Galaxy, Nebula, Meridian, Eclipse 26%
Lumen, Shine, Radiance, Brighten 25%
Flowers/ Botanical
Tulip, Sorrel, Lilac, Yarrow 23%
Lyrical, Symphony, Cadence, Rhythm                16%
Gorgeous, Beautiful, Handsome, Pristine         16%
Ethereal/ Mystical
Imagine, Aether, Magic, Fantasia 12%
Adore, Heart, Allure, Forever 9%
Cashmere, Heiress, Fortune, Luxe 8%
Rejoice, Jubilee, Lively, Joyful 2%

The Tip of the Iceberg?
This ranking may seem extreme, but there's reason to believe that it significantly underestimates the phenomenon. First off, not all of the names within a category are equivalent. Within the "animals" category, for instance, overwhelmingly female names include Gazelle and Sparrow; overwhelmingly male names include Lion and Bear. We are literally naming boys after predators and girls after prey.

What's more, my methodology was strict in excluding names that had more than a tiny history of past usage. That means that many word names that are currently experiencing an unprecedented surge of popularity went uncounted. The male dominance of the "Exaltation/Praise" category, for instance, doesn't even account for the 1,222 boys named Ace last year, vs. just 10 girls. The apparent evenhandedness of the "Reign" category doesn't reflect the most popular regal names, like King. 2,661 boys were named King, while only 234 girls were named Queen. In fact, every word name ranked among the 100 most popular baby names went uncounted, including the likes of Maverick and Hunter for boys and Autumn and Serenity for girls. Those four names alone were given to more than 18,000 babies last year.

The fact that boys are more likely to be named Steel and girls Lace may not be a surprise. More striking, I think, is the emotional tone these names set. It's not just that we like to picture our daughters as ethereal and our sons as powerful. It's that we apparently like to picture our daughters as happy, and our sons in a state of rage.

The most extreme, farthest apart categories of meaning names according to the gender ratios are Power and Joy. Can those really be opposites? And do we really want to deprive half of society of either?



Read More: The Baby Name State of the Union



October 17, 2018 11:11 AM

This is so sad. I'm expecting, and people keep telling me how much easier it is to raise boys than girls. And yet we are clearly failing our boys! From the moment we name them, we're ignoring their emotional needs and sending the message that only one emotion is acceptable for boys and men: anger. It's no wonder that men resort to violence and ultimately victimize women. Raising boys is clearly not easy--if it were, maybe we'd all better at it. 

October 18, 2018 8:33 AM

Years ago a friend told me she was planning on naming her daughter Whisper (this, despite the fact that she is 5'10" and her husband 6'5"). She had a son and named him a word-name meaning 'voyage'.

October 18, 2018 11:02 AM

Very depressing. Do these names congregate in certain states? I would also guess that this kind of naming  is 'adventurous' and tends to be preferred by younger parents.

October 18, 2018 5:40 PM

This suggests a new "test" for parents looking to give their daughter a traditionally male name (like James or Wesley): not just "would you name your son Margaret or Joan?" but "would you name your daughter Riot, Titan, Power, Racer, Hawk, or Valor?" (Or another of these that's closer to their naming style--maybe Victor for "traditionalists" and Wilder or Hunter for those who prefer more surnamey names.)

October 19, 2018 10:37 AM

This analysis represents the very best of statistical and critical social analysis and is why I love this site. Major, major kudos, Laura!

The takeaway is so depressing that I find myself having the impulse to share two silly ideas/anecdotes:

a. On-trend twin idea: Violet (g) and Violent (b).

b. The other day I met a little girl named Caper, which I really like in that it's very on-trend in a bunch of mutually-contradictory senses. So it's polysemantic: Caper as in the little berries that are pickled and jarred, which is a nature name like the ones discussed in this blog and strickes me as similar to Olive. It also echoes the professional surname trend, as in -er, a la Carter, Archer, Cooper etc.. Finally it means adventerous exploit. On a girl, that meaning really works against the girls-as-love-and-happiness trend. I love it!  


October 19, 2018 2:44 PM

The old traditional trends in naming I tend to think of is that boys need to be trusted in business, and girls need to be desirable spouses (Old. Traditional. I know.). As a result, the boys' names are pulled from the same old list of societally approved names over generations, while the girls' names need to change up each generation because youth is important for spousal choice (can't be thought of as a grandma with grandma's name). 

Today, however, with the vast interconnectivity of people, the need to be recognized, and diversity in the workplace, boys no longer need to remain in the carefully curated short list to be trusted. Indeed, being able to be identified against a broadening backdrop is necessary. Hence, new naming conventions. 

For girls, entry into business is increasingly important, so the same pressures on boys' names exist on girls' names, too. But there's still the youthful, beautiful, felicitous flair. At least, that's what this trend looks like, to me.

So a quick question: Palisade: Boy's or Girl's name?


October 27, 2018 4:18 PM

I'm interested by Sincere, because looking at the SSA rankings its usage is very new (first ranked in 2000), it's been getting more popular since then (#567 last year), and it's never been ranked for girls. New virtue names for boys that are even remotely popular are rare--except this. Ernest for the 21st century?


November 7, 2018 5:15 PM

I find that kind of funny because, while I didn't use word names, I did choose very much because of meaning. I had sons first, and both of their names are "happy" names, with meanings very much along the lines of joy. When we were expecting our third, a daughter, I tried to find a happy name that I was comfortable with, but they kept meaning things like "pleasant" or "delightful" or other things where the meaning was SOMEONE ELSE'S happiness, not HER OWN happiness. We ended up choosing a name that meant "flourish" and I very much hope that she finds a path on which to flourish and find her own happiness.