When Does a Name Become Androgynous?

Jun 17th 2010

Countless names are borne by both boys and girls. You have your contemporary inventions (Daylin), your surnames (Kerry), your nickames (Alex). No problem, we can all play nicely together. But other names keep a "single sex" identity despite some opposite-sex usage. The existence of '70s tv actress Michael Learned, for instance, wasn't enough to keep Michael from sounding solidly masculine.

Recently, the androgyny floodgates have opened on male names ending in a vowel sound. There are now more female Rileys born than males, and the masculine biblical name Micah is a fixture on the girls' top 1000 list. As an impartial name observer, you have to call both of those names androgynous today. (Moms of male Rileys, please don't shoot the messenger.) But where do you draw the line and declare a name unisex in usage?

This isn't mere philosophical musing for me. I have practical decisions to make. In the past week, users have submitted the girls' names Ezra, Luca, Luka and Levi to Namipedia. I now have to decide which to let stay, if any.

You could say "Why not just let 'em all stay? What's the harm?" But Namipedia is selective for a reason. The goal is for every single page to be useful or informative for name searchers. Randomly tossing in boy names under the girl's heading or vice versa doesn't seem useful or informative. If anything, it's spreading disinformation: declaring a name that 99% of people consider single-sex to be unisex.

Here's some background on the four names in question. All four are masculine biblical classics. All four end in vowels. All four have been bestowed on dozens of American baby girls...but none come close to cracking the top 1000 girls' names.

The most common feminine choice of the four names, Ezra, ranks #2,207 on the girl's chart. That's in-between land, with some obscure variant names like Naomy and Jazzlynn and some familiar but out-of-fashion names like Michele and Jennie. The least common, Luka, ranks in the 6000s in a tie with hundreds of names like Serenitee, Zulay and Krislynn. (Keep in mind that the mere fact that some people somewhere bear a name isn't sufficient to earn a name a Namipedia page. If it were, the list of Madeline spellings alone would be endless.)

So how would you make the Namipedia decision? Percentages? Micah is only 9% female, but it has ranked among the top 1000 girls' names for 30 years straight. A raw number cutoff? One complicating factor is that a tiny fraction of babies always get checked off in the wrong sex column. That means that the more popular the boy's name is, the more mistakes will end up in the girl's column. (And an -a ending might make data entry mistakes more likely.)

So the criteria might have to be subtler than that. What would you do? I'm all ears.

Emmerich the Beautiful

Jun 11th 2010

Last week, I was surprised to see the name Americus submitted to Namipedia...as a girl's name. The -us form is the Roman masculine -- think Julius and Antonius vs. Julia and Antonia. But the reader who submitted the name, Aurora, is careful about such things. What did she know that I didn't? Time to go name digging!

First, the usage. Americus was a modestly common 19th-century American name. Use was mostly Southern and overwhelmingly rural. Within those boundaries, though, Americuses came in all stripes: male and female, black and white. (The black Americuses included quite a few born into slavery. Whether the name was given by slave owners or adopted as a statement by new freemen, I can't say.)

Americus isn't a common name in other countries, so the American usage was clearly inspired by the name of the nation. Yet it isn't a American creation per se. You probably know that the name America comes from the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci was a merchant who took part in a series of voyages several years after Columbus. His expeditions along the coast of South America established that the land was indeed a "New World," not just scattered islands. This discovery was reported in celebrated letters which some at the time considered immodest attempts to steal glory from Columbus.

In fact, modern scholars believe that those widely-circulated Vespucci letters were fakes written by others. Vespucci himself was a more modest fellow. But real or not, the letters had a lasting legacy. A Latin translation of them was included in a book by a German geographer named Martin Waldseemüller. In Latin writings, Amerigo Vespucci was rendered as Americus Vespucius. A few years later, Waldseemüller published a world map in which he named the new land after Vespucci. On the model of Europa and Asia, which were named after women, he chose the feminine form of the Latin: America.

So that's how the Italian man Amerigo gave us the Latin female America. But where did Amerigo itself come from? Curiously, in the schoolbook accounts of "where the name America comes from," this question is never asked. The answer is...well, guesswork. Some think it was an early form of Enrico, which would make America a form of Henry. Most, though, believe it's from the Germanic Emmerich (meaning unclear, but probably home or whole + strength/ruler). That makes the closest English relatives Emery and Emerson.

So let's recap. America is a male Germanic name, adopted to medieval Italian, translated from the Italian to scholarly Latin, then switched to feminine form by a German who used it to describe lands claimed by Portugal and Spain. And it means either Henry or Emery. Then in the 19th Century, it was turned back to the masculine form to sound scholarly and classical, and was used for both boys and girls.

Put it all together and you get an object lesson in the limits of "meanings and origins." This name has been transformed utterly from its Germanic roots, acquiring deep new layers of meaning along the way. You could say that it's a name that forged its own meaning, with the help of ethnic crosscurrents, individual initiative, happenstance, and a pinch of chutzpah. All in all, a not a bad symbol of the New World.

In Memoriam: The Departed Names of 2009

Jun 4th 2010

Each year, we pause to remember the familiar names that slipped out of America's top 1000 list for the first time after generations of steady use. This year of rapid fashion change left us with a record 16 departed names to honor. I'll take them in stylistic groups:

The Gentle Gentlemen

Bernard, Clarence, Gordon, Leroy, Milton, Sheldon
Did you even notice them leaving? These mild-mannered gents, with their abundance of soft consonants, don't even enter parents' awareness today. They slipped off the charts calmly, with a minimum of fuss.

The Mid-Century Standards

Glenn, Kathy
There's a purity about these names, the very essence of our imagined suburban America. They are disappearing in our national flight from the "ordinary."

The Swinging Sixties
Gina

I'm actually a little surprised Gina lasted this long. Most of the sudden hits of the '60s have already had their swan songs. Gina now joins Tina and Dina -- and Brad, Jodi, and friends -- in hibernation.

The Individualist
Laurel
Can a name fall out of fashion if it was never in fashion to begin with? Laurel may sound a lot like Laura and Lauren, but it didn't follow either name's fashion curve. It was never too high or (until now) too low, and its botanical roots still shine through. Laurel is the least date-stamped name on the departed list, and still very usable.

The Ancients

Cornelius, Thaddeus
This pair surprises me a bit, since classical -s names for boys have some momentum. Perhaps the nickname Con could lure back parents who find Cornelius a little too corny?

The Too Close for Comfort

Justine, Krista, Kristin, Monique
Each of these names peaked in the 1980s, with 3 of the 4 making the top 100. Now they're gone. Feeling old yet?