"Meet my sons, Courtney and Leslie." Nobody would have batted an eye back in the 1920s, when both names were reliably masculine. But the minute they became trendy for girls, parents of boys ran in the other direction.
It's the dirty little secret of androgynous names: they sound like a move toward equality, but in real life they're a move toward masculinity. Parents of girls swarm toward boys' names. Parents of boys recoil from anything girlish. And once a boy's name turns toward the female side, it never turns back.
One boy's name has survived 50 years of sustained popularity on the girl's side and emerged surprisingly strong: Lee. It's a surname transfer, descended from an Old English word for meadow (preserved as the modern word "lea.") Lee became a popular given name in the American South in homage to Robert E. Lee, and spread across the country to settle in as a standard for boys.
Meanwhile, female Lees began trickling in from many directions. Thousands of "Lee Anns," "Leannas" and "Leahs" were called Lee. The romantic spelling Leigh was a big hit starting in the '60s. And just plain Lee was sustained by a string of glamorous actresses like Lee Remick. Yet by 1996, both Lee and Leigh had disappeared from the list of common girls' names...and male Lee was still chugging quietly along.
The most likely explanation for this rare staying power is the simplicity of the name. Lee's just too slim and swift to acquire much baggage. After all, plenty of nicknames have survived androgyny, from Billie and Bobbie in the '30s to Toni and Kris in the '60s. Which lets us make some predictions about current names that are veering into androgyny. By the Lee standard, Drew and Quinn look like good bets to weather the storm--while Avery and Addison may be facing rough seas ahead.
Some names slowly rise into popularity, others appear overnight like fashion cloudbursts. One of the biggest cloudbursts of recent years is the girl's name Nevaeh. Unknown as recently as the '90s, Neveah suddenly appeared as the 268th most popular name for American girls in 2001, and has been rising ever since. It's especially popular with African Americans and evangelical Christians, and as a character name in fantasy fiction.
Where did it come from? The simple answer is that Nevaeh is an anagram: Heaven backwards. Consider it kin to the many angelic names of the moment, like Angel, Miracle, and Heaven itself. The anagramming is unusual, but not unprecedented...the 1900s hit Reva was a remix of Vera.
But as always, linguistic origins only tell part of the story. A hit this big and sudden usually has a birthplace in popular culture. The name Camryn appeared in 1997, when Camryn Manheim hit tv on "The Practice." The name Lyric was born via Jada Pinkett Smith, star of the 1994 film Jason's Lyric. A name as unlikely as Nevaeh should be traceable to such a launching pad. Yet the Internet Movie Database lists no people or characters named Nevaeh. No Nevaeh has recorded an album. As for celebrity children, the earliest Nevaeh I've dug up is the daughter of singer Sonny Sandoval of the rock group P.O.D., born in 2000.
It's an unlikely launching pad. Of the thousands of parents choosing the name, how many do you suppose have even heard of Sonny Sandoval? Perhaps just a few...but a well-networked few. As a Christian rock group, P.O.D. taps into a strong, geographically distributed community where news travels fast. On every Christian parenting bulletin board (and there are plenty) , you'll find parents suggesting the name Nevaeh. The rock connection isn't mentioned--it was simply the name's point of entry into a rich social network, and the idea grew virally from there. Nevaeh may be the first baby name phenomenon created by the Internet.
A look ahead, part two. 10 names poised for a breakthrough or revival in 2005, with honorable mention candidates.
Ainsley -- An heir apparent to both Kaitlyn and Ashley, Ainsley is a Celtic import with a girlish sound yet a whiff of androgyny. (Runner up: Emlyn)
Annalise: A revival of something that never was -- Annalise sounds old-fashioned, but was never actually common. Thus nobody has images of a frumpy Great-Aunt Annalise to get past. (Runner up: Arabella)
Willow: A meaning name that sounds creative and contemporary, but not forced. (Runners up: Piper, Sienna)
Susannah: A comfortable biblical classic, soft and lyrical, yet extremely rare. Parents are finally noticing. (Runner up: Camilla)
Estella: Starting to catch on again with women, but men aren't yet convinced. They'll come around soon. (Runner up: Josephine, Violet)
Asher: A biblical classic, but it sounds like a modern blend of Ashton and Tyler. (Runner up: Jude)
Declan: With Aidan and Liam now American standards, the more Irish the better. (Runner up: Seamus)
Emmett: Old-fashioned but not heavy, a rarity for boys. (Runners up: Jasper, Everett)
Hudson: The hunt is on for surnames that won't turn androgynous! Hard to picture a little girl called Hud, but time will tell. (Runner up: Maddox)
Otto: The biggest stretch on the list. Otto will never be a top-10 hit, but this year I heard several stylish parents considering the name then shying away. In 2005, they start to pull the trigger. (Runner up: Reuben)