In her Oz adventures, Dorothy encountered cyclones and earthquakes, witches and wizards, and all manner of miraculous happenings. She accepted the incredible with great aplomb. But one odd occurrence she simply could not accept: a woman named Bill. Even if that "woman" happened to be a talking chicken.
"But it's all wrong, you know," declared Dorothy, earnestly; "and, if you don't mind, I shall call you 'Billina.' Putting the 'eena' on the end makes it a girl's name, you see."
Dorothy met Bill the yellow hen in the wonderful Ozma of Oz back in 1907. Today androgynous names are much more common, with more and more male names adopted for girls' use every year. Addison, Skyler and Bailey are just a few of the many names that sounded solidly masculine a generation ago, but now rank in the "who can tell?" category. Yet a girl named Bill sounds just as unlikely today as she did in 1907.
Parents are selective in their gender flipping. Androgynous names make up a distinctive style with key elements in common. I tallied up 33 names that were in use exclusively for boys 40-50 years ago, but now sound androgynous or feminine. 23 of the 33 turn out to have surname origins--Parker, Kelsey, Peyton. The others include: names with sounds and rhythms typical of female names (Avery, Aubrey); names that seemed new and unusual 50 years ago and emerged into popularity for boys and girls simultaneously (Devin, Darian); and nicknames, a group which has always been more fluid with gender assignments (Drew, Alex).
Meanwhile the traditional English boys' names remain steadfastly masculine. If you look at the most popular names of 100 years ago, from #1 John to #200 Roscoe, only two names--Lee and Marion--would give you a moment's gender confusion.
For a quick gauge of a name's modern androgyny potential, picture a boy in a rough-and-tumble playground a century ago. Give him the name in question. Then ask yourself: "what are the chance this name gets the kid beaten up?" Today's androgynous names are yesterday's "fancy" names, the too-precious monikers that stood out in a field of Tom, Dick and Harrys. Even names that have become masculine standards in the ensuing years, such as Cameron, retain an echo of fanciness that leaves them open to reassignment. And as for the classic fancy-lad names, girls named Chauncey and Chesley are doubtless right around the corner.
But the classic boys will still be boys. And Bills will still be roosters, not hens.
Two girls in my daughter's class share the same name, so the teachers use their last initials to distinguish them. That's hardly a news flash, I know. It's the same in classes across the country. But a bit ironic in this case because of the name: Elizabeth.
Once upon a time, England was so thick with Elizabeths that elaborate means were needed to tell them all apart. As a result, the name boasts an unparalleled collection of nicknames. Bess, Beth, Betsy, Betty, Eliza, Elsie, Libby, Lise, Liz, Lizbeth...there's an Elizabeth to fit any mood. Yet in this nickname-averse age, we stick with the full version and resort to last initials.
The traditional nicknames aren't all dying out, though. You'll still meet many a young Eliza or Lizbeth, but chances are it's her full given name. A Tessa, similarly, is unlikely to be Theresa nowadays, and a Jack is seldom John. In fact, we've gotten so comfortable with many nicknames that they've become untethered from their origins. It's been going on for generations--just look at the thousands of Minnies of the 1800s, worlds removed from staid Wilhelmina. (And Minnie's friend Mickey was probably never called Michael.) So a little quiz for you: what full name was the traditional source of...
. . . . . . . . . . .. . . . .
Answers (you didn't peek ahead, did you?)
Buffy: Elizabeth, naturally
Colin: Nicholas (also adopted as a form of the Gaelic Cailean)
Jenny: Jane or Jean (long before Jennifer)
Maisie: Margaret (via the Scottish Mairead)
Nancy: Anne (and earlier, Annis/Agnes)
Nell: Helen or Eleanor
Polly: Mary (via Molly)
Last week, I talked about "date-stamped" names that rise and fall seemingly overnight. The opposites of these are the timeless classics, names that remain trend-proof across generations. Katherine and Joseph, for instance, have been steadily popular through most of American history. When you hear those names, you have no clue whether the person is aged 1 or 100.
What about names that are steady, but not popular? Can you achieve the same timelessness with a name that's uncommon, or even surprising?
In fact, some of the most trend-proof names have flown steadily under the radar. Looking at the past 125 years of American baby names, I identified 450 names which ranked among the top 1000 for boys or girls in every decade. (A steadily unheard-of name isn't really timeless, but simply rare.) Then I looked for the most trend-proof names, regardless of overall level of usage. (My criterion for trend resistance, in case you're interested, is range/mean.) As it turns out, the #1 most timeless name in America is not Katherine or Joseph, or Elizabeth or James. It's one you'd probably never think of:
With its current popularity rank of #771, Antonia is a regular on my lists of underused names. Its grace and dignity stand up well to current favorites like Caroline and Sophia. And it is absolutely rock-solid timeless.
Antonia is a bit of an exception, though. Girls' names have always been most subject to fashion swings, and the uncommon-but-timeless roster is dominated by boys. Some of the notables:
There's some pretty good variety in that list, but if a single theme emerges it's an air of formality. From the smoothly urbane (Noel) to the classical (Claudia) to the aggressively sophisticated (Sterling), this is by and large a group that takes itself seriously. Formal fashions are more resistant to change than casual styles. A tuxedo is still a tuxedo, actresses dressing for the Academy Awards still try to look like Grace Kelly. And Katherine is still elegant, reliable Katherine...even as Kathi disappears from view.