Death by androgyny? The old name rules meet the new generation

Oct 21st 2009

It's one of the classic maxims of the baby name business: most parents who like "androgynous" names really like masculine-sounding names for both sexes. Parents of boys carefully avoid anything feminine. When a boy's name starts to show up on the girl's chart, the male version's days are usually numbered. Take a look at the NameVoyager graph of Leslie for a classic example.

In the past decades we've seen an explosion of new androgynous names. In addition to the 65 names that make both top 1000 lists, countless more names are surnames that could go either way (Jensen), new inventions you'd have to guess at (Braelyn), or spelling variations on androgynous names (Kamren and Camren make the top 1000 for boys only, Kamryn only for girls, Camryn both). It's not just individual names used for both sexes, it's a broad androgynous style that's defining a generation of names.

Does that mean an entire generation of names is destined to turn feminine? Will boys eventually find themselves stranded on a tiny name island with nothing but kingly classics and absurdly macho inventions to choose from? Don't panic yet, parents of boys. There are reasons to think that this crop may be different

Remember that the common wisdom on androgynous names comes from a history of long-time male names being adopted by females. Many of today's favorite emerged simultaneously as names for both sexes. What happens when a name starts out gender-neutral? Is one sex destined to "win" the name, or can it maintain a balanced sex ratio over time? And if there is a winner, who wins?

In many cases, these questions end up moot because the trendy names fade away before any resolution. Yet examples are mounting to suggest that the old rules may not apply, and all bets are off.

Take a look at the name Devin, in all its many spellings. 50 years ago it was essentially unknown, then it started climbing for boys and girls alike. The boys eventually took the lead, and in 2006 every spelling (Devin, Devon, Devyn) dropped off the girls' chart simultaneously, leaving the name suddenly, authoritatively masculine. The girls, meanwhile, are "winning" Addison. And still other names are showing staying power on both sides of the charts. As in the case of Kamren/Camren/Kamryn/Camryn, many of these splinter into multiple variants, each with its own sex ratio. For instance, Jalen is masculine, Jaelyn feminine, and Jaylin a tossup. What that means, in practice, is that you can't assume anything when you hear the name.

So it seems that unlike established names, new androgynous names don't inevitably tip toward the feminine. The trick is, they don't inevitably do anything. What crystal ball could have told you 15 years ago that Ashton would end up masculine and Addison feminine? In each case, the name's fluid gender identity made it easy for a celebrity example to shape public perception. (Check out this past post on Ashton to watch the forces of celebrity in action.) You can weigh risk factors, like whether the name contracts to a girlish or boyish sounding nickname. But in the end, if you choose a new androgynous name today you have to be prepared that 10 or 20 years down the line it may come across very differently.

Call me "Tink": The new adventures of old Tinker Bell

Oct 17th 2009

First things first: it's Tinker Bell, two words, not Tinkerbell. Has any major star of stage and screen been more consistently misspelled? Perhaps that's a sidways tribute to the naming prowess of playwright and author J.M. Barrie. The name flows so naturally, you can scarcely hear the words.

In fact, Barrie introduced a full lineup of iconic character names in his play and stories about Peter Pan.  Captain Hook boiled down pirate tales to their villainous essence. Wendy, a little known nickname, became a girlish standard. And Peter Pan, when you stop to think of it, is just a straightforward linking of everyday boy and untamed, pipe-playing nature spirit...but you don't stop to think of it, because it sounds so natural. Even the Darling family has the timeless feel of fairy tales. Think of Prince Charming before them, and the Dearly family of Dodie Smith's The 101 Dalmations or "Jim Dear and Darling" of Disney's Lady and the Tramp later on.

But it's Tinker Bell who's taking center stage right now. Reader zoerhenne sent me a link about the fairy's upcoming star turn in a new Disney DVD release, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure.

When you think of Disney's Tinker Bell, you probably think of her like this, from the original hand-animated film of Peter Pan:


She's a dainty little pixie, giving off the all-important pixie dust that lets trusting children fly. Tinker Bell was Barrie's 20th-century invention, yet in name and concept she slips seamlessly into the immortal realm of childhood magic. Her name follows the convention of heroines like Thumbelina and Cinderella, evocative nouns stretched out into feminine name form.

In the case of Tinker Bell, the evocation of tinkling bells is the perfect auditory counterpart to pixie dust. (The name shouldn't be taken too literally; a tinker was an itinerant tinsmith who mended pots and pans.) It's not just a name of magic, but of dreams of magic: spine-tingling and elusive. Even in our age where "bell" names like Annabelle and Isabella are the peak of style for girls, Tinkerbell remains an unlikely choice -- the most prominent namesake to date has been Paris Hilton's pet chihuahua. Such a pixieish name fairly demands a wand and gossamer wings.

But that pixie's been changing. As the centerpiece of the "Disney Fairies" franchise she's taken on more substance. The new movie appears to take it even further. Check out this screenshot from the trailer:


This time around, the intrepid Tinker Bell appears to be setting out on an Indiana Jones-style adventure, dressed a lot like...Peter Pan.

I'm all for strong heroines, but this is a pretty dramatic change for a fairy who used to be delicate enough to perish from a single child's disbelief. It's a big change for the name, too. The name Tinker Bell is all pixie, zero action hero. Is it any surprise that in this new incarnation, Tinker Bell goes more and more by the nickname Tink?

The Global Hit Name You Haven't Noticed

Oct 12th 2009

I've talked before about the international style of names -- the smooth classics that are easy to spell and pronounce in many languages, and that have soared in the age of the European Union. Names like Alexander, Anna and Lucas are popular in dozens of different countries. As an English speaker, you can probably feel their fashion energy. They are names of our moment, timeless yet distinctly youthful. As a group, they're five times more popular in the U.S. today than they were in the 1960s.

Yet there's another name with global momentum to rival those fashionable three. It's a boy's name, a biblical classic. A form of it ranks in the top 10 in 22 different countries, including the United States. In fact, it cracks the top 100 in every single country that reports its top 100 names. Have you thought of Matthew yet?

Matthew strikes me as an unusually quiet world beater. Part of that, doubtless, has to do with my American perspective. The U.S. hit its Matthew stride early. The name first hit the American top 100 in 1956, and it has stayed there ever since. It's hard to see a New Classic like that as trendy.

There are other reasons for its stealth popularity too, though. Unlike the international-styled names, Matthew tends to "go local" around the world with a wealth of international variants. The two spellings Anna and Ana are enough for that name to cover the globe. Even Lucas, which like Matthew splits into local and Latinate versions (Matthew/Matthias, Luke/Lucas), places only five forms on the global charts: Luca, Lucas, Luka, Lukas and Luke. Matthew, in contrast, shows up in 30 different versions from Maciej to Thijs. This can mask the name's true fashion power when you're scanning global rankings -- or even rankings within a single country. Belgium, with its multiple linguistic traditions, counts no fewer than seven versions of Matthew among its top 100 boys' names.

Here's my roundup of top-100 Matthews around the world. The real number is doubtless much higher, as many countries report only their top 10 or 20 names.

Argentina: Matías, #3; Mateo, #13
Australia/New South Wales: Matthew, #21
Australia/Victoria: Matthew, #21
Austria: Matthias, #19
Belgium: Mathis, #9; Matteo, #22; Mathias, #23; Mathéo, #35; Mats, #89; Mathieu, #90; Matthias, #97
Brazil: Matheus, #4
Canada/Alberta: Matthew, #8
Canada/British Columbia: Matthew, #6
Canada/Ontario: Matthew, #2
Canada/Quebec: Mathis, #11; Mathieu, #35; Mathias, #47; Matthew, #76; Mathys, #78; Matis, #84
Canada/Saskatchewan: Matthew, #10
Chile: Matias, #4
Czech Republic: Matej, #7; Matyas, #17; Matous, #25
Denmark: Mathias, #11, Mads, #12
England: Matthew, #24
Finland: Matias, #4
France: Mathis, #3
Georgia: Mate, #8
Germany: Matthis, #87
Hungary: Máté, #2; Matyas, #53
Iceland: Matthias, #32
Ireland: Matthew, #17
Italy: Matteo, #4; Mattia, #7
Lithuania: Matas, #1
Netherlands: Thijs, #13
New Zealand: Matthew, #21
Northern Ireland: Matthew, #2
Norway: Mathias, #1, Mats, #56, Mads, #95
Poland: Mateusz, #3; Maciej, #11
Scotland: Matthew, #9
Slovenia: Matic, #8; Matevž, #28; Matej, #30; Matija, #32
Spain: Mateo, #62
Sweden: Mattias, #82
Switzerland (Italian): Mattia, #4
United States: Matthew, #10


p.s. My timing's off on posts this week...I hope anyone who still wants to discuss urban legend names will continue to comment on the earlier series, parts 1, 2, and 3.