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The Evolution of Unisex Names

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From Male to Female to Unisex


Research shows that men with unusual or trendy names, including unisex names, often don't fare as well in traditional business settings as do their cohorts with more commonly used names. If your wee one is destined for a place in the family insurance business or law practice, think twice about choosing a name that's not in the traditional or classic categories.

Name Dropping

You can keep your child's gender from being a complete guessing game in sight-unseen situations—such as when he or she is filling out an application for a girls- or boys-only school—if you choose a middle name that clearly indicates gender. Or, for that matter, you can keep everyone in the dark by going the opposite direction.

The pool of unisex names grew slowly with time as more parents looked over the available name pools and cherry-picked the ones they thought would translate well to the opposite sex. However, girls named Dale or Jordan still got funny looks until the latter part of the twentieth century. It was then that this naming fashion picked up steam and started to accelerate, largely driven by the changing societal patterns in the U.S. and the increasing desire of parents to find unusual names for their children.

American parents began changing the name fashions for their children in a big way during the 1970s. The available name pool expanded rapidly as these parents searched for the unique and the unusual. In many cases, they found the answer to their needs right under their noses. Family genealogies became fertile ground from which to pull nearly forgotten surnames, and these surnames were catapulted into given name status, often for boys and girls both.

Shattering the Glass Ceiling

Today, unisex names comprise a well-established name fashion that continues to gain in popularity. Why? Some parents feel that giving their children—especially daughters—sexually ambiguous or neutral names can remove a certain level of gender discrimination.

This theory was given a litmus test a few years ago when Shannon Faulkner (a girl) applied to The Citadel, one of the last bastions of Southern male pride and, at the time, a boys-only military school in South Carolina. She was accepted on her record alone, which caused no end of problems when she showed up for her first day at school. The sound of jaws dropping could be heard around the country. They literally didn't know what to do with her.

While Faulkner's stay at The Citadel wasn't successful, she did pave the way for other young women to attend in successive years. She couldn't have done what she did if she had a unisex name that was more widely used for girls than boys; she probably wouldn't have made it past the application stage if her name was Beverly. But Shannon was so gender-neutral that The Citadel officials really didn't have a clue. (Guess she didn't have to submit a photo with her application!)

Alphabet Soup

Since they have both male and female qualities, unisex names are also referred to as androgynous names (from the Greek andros, meaning “man,” and gyne, meaning “woman”).

All in the Family

Another reason why these names continue to increase in popularity is that they provide yet another way for keeping family names alive. Lots of surnames that were once relegated to being used as middle names are now emerging as first names. It's a great way to keep a maternal family name alive, especially if it's one that works well as a first name.

The Warning Label

Name Dropping

Researching the meaning and history of names can turn up great names, especially in the unisex category. Diane Keaton's choice of the name Dexter for her daughter raised more than a few eyebrows, as Dexter is considered more masculine than unisex. However, closer scrutiny shows that Keaton did a great research job on this name. Dexter may be thought of as a name for the boys today, but it started out as a feminine name as it comes from the Old English term for “woman dyer.” Way to go, Annie Hall!


Names that change in gender tend to go from masculine to unisex to female—rarely the other way around—which makes them better choices for girls than boys. While it can take some time for this to happen for some names in transition, the trendy unisex name that you give your son today could be more closely linked to the distaff side of things by the time he reaches adulthood.

Now, before we get into all the great unisex names out there, I want to take a moment to forewarn you about one minor item. When it comes to gender-neutral names, not everyone is quite on board, and you (and your child) may experience some minor annoyances, like the following conversation I had with my grandmother many, many years ago:

Gary … his name's Gary, right?”

No, Grandma, it's Kerry.”

Well, that's a silly name for a boy. I don't want you playing with him.”

That little exchange happened on a visit to my grandparents when I was about eight years old or so. Kerry was the new kid down the street, a welcome addition to a neighborhood where there weren't many kids my age to begin with, and I was thrilled to have a new playmate. My grandmother, however, was suspicious. What parents in their right minds would give a boy a girls' name?

She just couldn't get her ears around the name Kerry for a boy, and, frankly, her attitude wasn't that unusual back in the mid-1960s. Boys had boys' names and girls had girls' names and that's all there was to it … for the most part, anyway. Clearly, as little Kerry illustrated, there were exceptions even back then. But my grandmother, Edna (how's that for a dated name!), just couldn't make sense of it.

Of course, that was then and this is now, and today there's a better chance that a Kerry or a Shannon or a Sam will be a name given to either a male or a female. My grandmother's reaction was most definitely a severe one, but still, you may have to deal with mix-ups every now and again. This will probably embarrass the person making the mistake more than it will you or your child. But remember what I said earlier about giving your wee one a name he or she can comfortably grow up with. The same rules apply here, too.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baby Names © 1999 by Sonia Weiss. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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