Unisex Baby Names Don't Stay Unisex

Aug 18th 2016

For many parents, unisex baby names feel like a breath of fresh air. A name like Lennon or Landry steps outside the traditional name stream and can't be immediately labeled "boy" or "girl." That freedom from preconceptions is part of the name's appeal, both in style terms and in deeper dreams of a lifetime without limits. But an analysis of name stats over the past generation suggests that a balanced gender ratio is unlikely to last. Few unisex names stay unisex.

Image via Maxx-Studio/Shutterstock

I Identified all baby names in regular use 25 years ago that were "unguessably unisex." (My threshholds were at least 200 babies born in the year, and no greater than a 2:1 gender ratio in either direction). 33 names made the cut. A generation later, here's what has happened to the balanced names:

• 23 have shifted to single-sex dominated usage (11 male, 12 female).

• 10 have remained unisex.

So as a starting point, a unisex name had less than a 1 in 3 chance of remaining balanced. If you look closer, though, the numbers are even more dramatic.

Quite a few of the names that moved single-sex did so dramatically, becoming hit names for girls or boys. Every single name that remained unisex dropped in popularity. Some have essentially disappeared. Names like Loren and Codie, it turns out, weren't so much lasting unisex names as former sex-stamped hits fading out of use.

If we look just at the unisex names of 1990 that are still at least modestly popular, the stable unisex rate falls to 1 in 5. A parent who chose a unisex name in 1990 was essentially rolling the dice on the name's ultimate gender makeup. A single-sex name of either sex was a more likely outcome than an unguessably androgynous adult name.

The graph below shows the sex ratio of these names drifting over the 25-year period. The center 50% line represents names given to equal numbers of girls and boys:


Name styles are evolving fast, but this phenomenon doesn't seem to be fading. Looking at a more recent sample, almost half of the unisex names of just 10 years ago have already swung one way or the other.

The data suggest that unisex names as a group are a style in flux. They're a mix of new names that have yet to settle into an image or identity; older names slipping out of style; girlish respellings of passingly trendy boys' names; names in mid-transition from masculine to feminine; and a handful of lastingly unisex names.

From the point of view of the here and now, the future direction of an individual name is hard to predict. In 1990, Kirby and Avery were both uncommon androgynous names. Today Avery is a huge hit girl's name while Kirby is vanishing for both sexes. The fluid identity of unisex names also makes them particularly susceptible to celebrity influence. Ashton and Kendall were unisex in 1990, but thanks to Ashton Kutcher and Kendall Jenner, Ashton is now overwhelmingly male and Kendall overwhelmingly female. If fluidity is your goal, you'll find it a maddenly hard quality to bottle for the future.

Just to be clear, I am NOT saying everyone should choose a single-sex name. Each name choice is unique, and parents may be drawn to unisex names for many reasons. If Hollis is a family surname, if Emory is your alma mater, if Lennon is a personal hero, or if you just love the sound and meaning of Ever, those qualities are intrinsic and will never fade. Choose the name you love for all the reasons you love it. But if you're looking for androgyny for its own sake, go in with your eyes open.


The Hottest Scientist Baby Names

Aug 12th 2016

A decade ago, this article couldn't have existed. Hot, fast-rising names inspired by scientists rather than movie heroes or sports stars? Not a chance. But parents are starting to look to new sources of baby name inspiration, especially sources that carry their own unique cultural energy. For some families, that means the high wattage of rock star names. For others, it's the heroes of science, technology and mathematics who light up the night.

At first glance, you might dismiss some of these trending names as mere coincidence. After all, Tesla is now an automobile brand as well as the name of inventor Nikola Tesla. Pascal is a French and German given name as well as mathematician Blaise Pascal. Carver means skateboards and short stories as well as a botanist George Washington Carver. But then there's Feynman. The 20 American boys named after physicist Richard Feynman last year make it clear that scientific names are for real.

Nikola Tesla. Image via commons.wikimedia.org

All of these scientist names have risen in popularity over the past decade, most doubling, tripling or more. If you like the idea of name inspired by the spirit of discovery, you should find plenty of ideas here—or perhaps you'll be emboldened to name after a scientific hero of your own.


Archimedes: The greatest mathematician of ancient Greece never even registered in American baby name statistics until this decade. Quirky, classical and unquestionably scientific, Archimedes is still a very rare name, but rising.

Carver: This name has many associations, but its links to George Washington Carver run deep. Before this generation, the name's historic peak was the year of the famous African-American botanist's death. For bonus scientist points, Carver Mead is a modern pioneer of microelectronics.

Edison: Inventor Thomas Alva Edison's surname fits in particularly well with contemporary name styles. It's the most popular name on this list, rising alongside other -son names from American history like Emerson and Jackson.

Feynman: This unlikely name trend is a tribute to the spirit of physicist Richard Feynman as well as to his scientific accomplishments. Feyman's popular memoirs show off an irreverent soul who lived life to the fullest.

Galileo: Astronomer/physicist Galileo Galilei's discoveries led to his conviction for heresy. Yet the baby name Galileo, with its lyrical sound and celestial associations, suggests the romantic, adventurous side of scientific discovery.

Joule: Physicist James Prescott Joule's name name made its first-ever appearance in the baby name stats last year. Pronounced like "jewel," it is given most often to girls.

Kepler: The action-minded -er ending makes mathematician/ astronomer Johannes Kepler's name sound current, but the nod to scientific history is clear.

Pascal: The most traditional given name on this list, the French name Pascal refers to Easter and was once a traditional choice for boys born on Good Friday. In English it's linked more strongly to mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal.

Sagan: Astronomer Carl Sagan is best known for popularizing his discipline with exuberance and awe. The name (pronounced SAY-gin) is given to both sexes, but more often boys.

Tesla: Long underappreciated, electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla is much admired among a new generation of inventors and engineers. Tesla electric cars were named in his honor, as were 166 girls (and 5 boys) last year.

Tycho: Groundbreaking 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe was no cloistered academic. Hugely wealthy, Brahe was known for eccentric indulgences like keeping a pet elk, and wearing a fake brass nose after his own nose was harmed in a duel over a mathematical formula. The name is usually pronounced TIE-ko.


Baby Names of the American Heartland

Aug 8th 2016

Our exploration of the varied and unique regions of the United States has also been an exploration in names. To follow up from previous posts about the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, today we’ll be turning to the Midwestern heartland. A region defined by diversity and community, the Midwest offers some lovely names based on geography, geology, and history that may inspire you.

As always, please comment with your own thoughts and suggestions for names sparked by the American Midwest!

Image via iStock.com/Katie_Martynova

Prairie. This rare nature name comes from the French for "grassland," but the sound of Prairie is pure Americana. It’s been used for girls since 1973, but has never become popular - only six baby girls named Prairie were born last year. It evokes feelings of wide open spaces and exploration, but fits in with style sisters Maisie and Sadie. Other similar options include Meadow and Lea.

Robin. One might think that Robin isn’t so much mid-western as mid-century - it peaked for boys in the 1950’s and for girls in the 1960’s. But this gender-neutral name has gained traction for boys again, probably due to its status as an animal name and as a style sibling for Ruben, Corbin, or Rowan. Both Michigan and Wisconsin count the robin as their state bird, and the feathered namesake has long been considered a symbol of spring.

Granger. Long defined by its agriculture, the Midwest is one of the most productive farming regions in the country. Why not consider Granger as a quirky, complementary option for boys? Granger is not only agricultural but literary, being the last name of Hermione in the Harry Potter series. It’s akin to other popular occupational names, like Parker or Walker, but maintains an air of permanence, not passing fancy.

Violet. This retro name has taken the charts by storm; currently, Violet is at #50, the highest it’s been since the early 1900’s. But its classic sound and floral vibe make it more than just a flash in the pan. The state flower of both Illinois and Wisconsin, the violet flower can be found all over the middle of the country. The flower is also associated with faithfulness - not a bad connection for a baby Violet!

Willa. Thanks to similar-sounding William and Willow, Willa has shot up the US top 1000 to its current place at #481. It’s fresh and vintage, feminine and strong, with quite a few real and fictional namesakes. Much of its usage is thanks to Midwestern author Willa Cather, whose Great Plains trilogy offered a romantic view of frontier life to American readers. Some rare names found in Cather’s books include Emil, Ivar, Amedee, Signa, and Antonia.

Lawrence. An enduring masculine choice in the English-speaking world, Lawrence has its roots in ancient Rome and connections to the natural world. Cities called Lawrence exist across the Midwest, each named after a different Mr. Lawrence (first names of these men include John, James, and Amos). Lawrence has been on the decline in recent years as more and more names have entered baby books, but it hasn’t lost its refinement and respectability.

Galena. The city of Galena, Kansas was named after the mineral found in the area - indeed, the Midwest region is one of the largest galena mining regions in the United States. The name also has history as a Greek moniker meaning "calm." Galena fits in with fashionable Alina, Adelina, and Selena, but with a prodigious European twist.

Hawthorn. Another botanical name with a rich history, Hawthorn is an unexpected but unparalleled choice. The hawthorn is the state flower of Missouri, designated as such by Sarah Lucille Turner, one of the first women to serve in the Missouri House of Representatives. In Celtic mythology, the hawthorn represents balance, and Hawthorn itself offers a middle ground between the agrarian world and established English surnames.

Dakota. While Dakota has only been in the US top 1000 since the mid-1980’s, it has become a timeless unisex name. The name Dakota is sprinkled all across the Midwest, from states to towns to rock formations, and originally comes from a Sioux word meaning "friend." While Dakota is far from rare, it’s still a pleasant name with an open, friendly feeling.

Lincoln. Beloved president Abraham Lincoln had quite the Midwestern pedigree: he was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and elected in Illinois before heading to the White House. Today, Lincoln is the second most popular presidential name (surpassed only by Jackson). Lincoln is classic, accessible, and wholly American - an inspirational choice.

Cedar. Now the name of multiple towns and rivers, Cedar originally referred to the red cedar trees growing in the Midwest region. Though it’s never been popular as a name, it has many positive qualities to recommend itself: it fits in with other tree names like Willow and Hazel, it sounds stylistically like contemporary favorites Connor and Sawyer, and it’s often mentioned in the Bible as a desirable material and meaningful plant. Erez, the Hebrew translation, is also used as a first name in Israel.

Wright. Three of the most influential Midwest natives have been Wrights: aviators Orville and Wilbur, and architect Frank Lloyd. The surname actually ranked as a first name from the late 1880s through the early 1900s, but has fallen into uncommon use - only thirteen baby Wrights were born last year. However, the name has a positive and tenacious vibe, the kind of pluck that might spark your own little one’s creativity.