Characters with Ambiguous Gender

I'm currently trying to write a story in 1st person POV, where the main character/narrator's gender is ambiguous throughout the whole story. It's not that the main character doesn't identify as male/female, but the idea is that their gender is never explicitly mentioned. It's up to the reader to decide on the character's gender, based on their dialogue/actions/etc. 

Which brings me to the issue: the main character is a parent and their children are an integral part of the story. I'm at a loss to come up with gender neutral names for "parent" which the children will call them. Preferably something that doesn't lean too much one way or the other.

Also: for the same story, I'd like to have a baby character (one of the main character's children) whose gender is also ambiguous throughout. I'm liking unisex A names for this character, perhaps Alex, but that doesn't feel quite right. The siblings are Katherine and Elliott (boy). Non-A names are all right too!

Suggestions appreciated!


October 6, 2015 4:17 PM

My first instinct for gender ambiguity is Pat a la SNL. But I suppose at this point that would be closer to the age of a grandparent. 

Charlie or Chris would work for a parent born in the 80s--maybe spelled Kris? Jess would also work. In middle school, we had to clarify between boy and girl Jordan and Morgan. Maybe Danny? (This makes me realize that most of the 80s kids I knew had unisex nicknames, but genedered full names.

As for the child, how about AveryLandry is very even right now on the boy/girl counts. Of course Riley is the unisex name of the moment. 

October 6, 2015 4:22 PM

I just reread what you were asking for...a substitute for "mom" or "dad", right?

Depending on the family dynamic, would it work for the kids to call the parent by their first name? Would that work with the family that you're writing? 

Another option is something totally out of the blue. Maybe something like Pimzy? Or some other kind of nickname like Red? 

October 6, 2015 7:13 PM

Parental Unit, for those who remember the Coneheads

October 6, 2015 11:33 PM

I know several families who have used Baba as a term for a butch (if female) parent who is ill-at-ease with the title of "mother" or "mommy", and I think it might work reasonably well, here, too. As I understand it, it has convergent linguistic evolution as a term for grandmother in some languages and a term for father in other languages. (Unsurprising that it convergently evolved, because ma, da and ba are totally the first sounds babies make when they babble, so of COURSE we make parent- and important caregiver-titles out of those sounds, because we really want to think our babies are talking about us, ha.)

I do like Pimzy or something like that which could conceivably have grown organically out of the mangling of a parent's first name while the child was quite young.

October 7, 2015 12:12 AM

That was my first thought--my mother actually is called Baba by her grandkids, coined by my twins (from Bachan Barbara); but it was confusing for my brother's in-laws when my nephew was born a decade later, as they speak Cantonese and think my brother should be Baba ;-).

The main problem I could see with this term is that for the folks who are familiar with one of the possible derivations, they might make gender assumptions--especially those who know it as Daddy (this would be my first assumption if I heard/read about kids calling a parent Baba).

October 7, 2015 12:06 AM

Maybe something that could plausibly have been coined by an infant, using sounds babies can make, like Tabby or Gagu or Nay-nay.

October 7, 2015 5:20 PM

I know one family in which the children called their father Tati. Said TAH-tee. I don't think it's widely known or used enough for most people to have an automatic gender association. In another family I know the grandpa was called Skee (for no apparent reason), which lends itself I think to the idea of a unique name created out of the first family baby's mangling of a different name. In my family my son calls his much older sister Ninny, and I think he thinks of her kind of as a second mom, and that pet name has the same kind of early talker mangling origins.

I also think the previous suggestion of Baba could work well. Though it might be more loaded than a unique invention.

October 7, 2015 7:29 PM

Tati is Yiddish for daddy, and most Ashkenazic Jews will know it, just as they know bubbe for grandma.  Many Yiddish words have "leaked" into general usage in the US, England, the Netherlands and elsewhere.  To what extent tati would be known generally in the US I can't say, but certainly some will know it.

October 8, 2015 12:28 AM

Thanks for clarifying. I didn't know if was used more broadly among Ashkenazim or if it was particular to this family. 

October 8, 2015 7:49 PM

My not-at-all-Jewish (rabidly Catholic, in fact) boss is called Táti by his kids (and I think his grandkids, too, but I'm not certain about that). I had always put it down to yet another strange thing those Transylvanians do to the poor innocent Hungarian language. (Like saying "I received it" when they mean "I found it", or confusing the words for "pastry" and "pasta".) So now I'm even more puzzled: are they, unknowingly perhaps, using a Yiddish import word, or is this a case of convergent invention, or what?

October 8, 2015 9:05 PM

Because of the policies of Miklos Horthy, the Nazis did not begin the wholesale extermination of Hungarian Jews until March 1944, years after the bulk of eastern European Jews were ash.  Hence more Hungarian Jews survived the war than Jews from other parts of Europe that were subject to Nazi rule.  As a result the bulk of Jews who use Yiddish as their first language, whether they live in Brooklyn, upstate NY, NJ, Montreal, Israel and elsewhere, are descended from Holocaust survivors of Hungarian background and speak a Hungarian dialect of Yiddish which is essentially incomprehensible to me.  It is possible that your boss, I presume of Hungarian extraction, has had contact woth Hungarian Yiddish-speaking Jews and picked up some words here and there. Or not....

October 7, 2015 8:41 PM

The simplest mom/dad name would be Parent.

Sasha is gender ambiguous (male in Russian, but sounds female to American ears).  Ariel (or perhaps Ari), Avery, Angel, Alexis, and Arin are the A names from my list.  Quinn is a modern favorite. 

If I knew a family with girl Katherine and boy Elliott plus (insert gender neutral name), I'd assume boy, because Katherine is not gender neutral at all, but Elliott is. 

October 8, 2015 3:41 PM

That's a good point that a boy named Elliott implies the baby is also a boy. I think I may end up making the baby a girl, but keep the narrator's gender ambiguous.

October 8, 2015 3:28 PM

Thank you, all! I like the idea of Baba or better yet making up my own "parent" word. If the first sounds a baby makes are "ma", "da", "pa" and "ba" maybe bapa would work? It skews masculine to me. Thoughts?

October 8, 2015 5:13 PM

How about Boppy? Same sounds, but I think without the "pa" in there it reads a little less masculine.

I think you could probably add "ga" and maybe "ya" and "ha" to your list of sounds; also, a lot of early sounds are of the ah-(syllable of choice) variety, so maybe something like Ahpa? 

October 8, 2015 6:26 PM

Apa is Hungarian for "Dad".

Boppy is a brand of nursing pillow -- which I think makes it perfect as a baby-invented parental moniker.

The classic way to imitate baby talk is "goo-goo-gah-gah", right? So how about parents called Gugu and Gaga?

October 8, 2015 11:27 PM

I was thinking maybe Aga, for a little less Lady Gaga referencing? Only conflict I can think of is that it's a high-end British stove brand, but that is a very obscure reference.

The first vocalizations two my kids made were definitely something along the lines of "Uh-rö."

October 8, 2015 7:42 PM

I think anything with da or pa in it is going to skew male, and anything with ma will skew female. For the ambiguity you're looking for you might need to avoid or combine them. Would mapa work?

October 8, 2015 8:31 PM


October 9, 2015 12:02 AM

IMHO, something like mapa is a bit loaded. I feel like it would be used either for a transgender parent, an English version of some culture's traditions of saying Mother's Father = Mapa, or a single parent who acted as both mom and dad. 

The question is whether you want to keep the reader guessing about the parent's gender, or if you want to make it a non-issue. Mapa is asking the reeader to question gender, whereas something like Gaga, Juju, Lolly is basically ignoring gender as a characteristic and allowing the reader to choose whether they care if you're describing a male or female. 

October 9, 2015 10:45 AM

Well said!!

October 9, 2015 7:21 PM

That's something I hadn't thought about. Thanks, Caren! It occurred to me that I will likely reference the other parent in the story.

I think I'll use "baba" for the main character and something gender-irrelevant for the other parent. Aga is a good idea (thanks, lucubratrix!). Gaga is a bit too Lady Gaga for me. I'm also considering Ata and Ati (both made-up)

October 22, 2015 11:02 PM

The youngest child could be named Avery, Taylor, Peyton, Jordan, Kai, or Alex. I like Alex, Peyton (or Payton), and Avery, but my favorite is Kai.

October 22, 2015 7:26 PM

Random relevant observation: a young girl we know calls her grandfather Nana. The family is from India.

Another young girl we know calls her grandmother (who is her primary caregiver) /on-na/ (like the Frozen pronunciation of Anna). The family is half Polish, half Greek.

October 27, 2015 6:48 PM

Uno might be an interesting Mama/Daddy alternative. 

November 19, 2015 7:42 PM

I just came across the word yaya in a fantasy book.  They had it mean child, but I thought it might work well for an alternative to mama or dada. 

November 19, 2015 10:18 PM

Yaya is a Greek term of endearment for a grandmother.

November 19, 2015 10:39 PM

Grandmother names might be a good source.  Baba is Russian and might also work.  Grandmother names sound vaguely parental, but don't seem overly tied to one gender because they aren't heard much outside of their language.