Unisex naming has been one of the greatest trends in American naming in the past 50 years, if not the past century. Mainly this has entailed traditionally masculine names or surnames (often both) gender-bending; that is, becoming widespread among females. Other times, a name that’s masculine in one language becomes feminine in English, as can be seen with the Italian Andrea and Michele. Still other times, a name will become extremely popular for one gender which will cause some parents to use it on the other.
Each generation seems to have its unisex name or set of unisex names. The first really big one – as far as I can tell – seems to be Shirley, the darling of the early 20th century. Her usage among women probably stems initially from an eponymous Brontë novel written in the 1840s. Surely, though, her popularity was boosted by Shirley Temple; while not terribly apparent in the ranking graphs alone, the raw numbers suggest that she jumped around 20,000 uses from 1934 to 1935 alone just among women who lived long enough to apply for Social Security. To put that in perspective, the current most popular girls’ name in America, Emma, was used only about 20,000 times in 2014 among almost all births.
Of course, Shirley wasn’t the trendiest unisex name forever. Carol was at its most popular in the 1940s. Chris, which is consistently popular as a boys’ name, was briefly popular around 1960. Stacy and Tracy were big in the early 1970s. And in the 1980s and 1990s, Ashley was queen. Nowadays, the big ones are Madison and Harper.
A good question to ask is whether a name is truly gender-neutral/unisex or if it simply skews strongly. Many commonly “unisex” names skew strongly feminine once they begin to gender-bend. There aren’t that many names that have an equal or almost equal association among both men and women. Off the top of my head, the only ones I can think of are Willie, Morgan, and Charlie. Willie was once in the top 100 for both men and women, but that was a century ago. Morgan is interesting because despite only recently gaining popularity among women, there’s an ancient association with Morgan le Fay. Charlie is very masculine in connotation but lately, usage-wise, it’s on equal footing for girls and boys, both being ranked around #220; I suspect this has to do with Charlotte‘s very high popularity.
I will write far more about unisex names in the future. Though I don’t personally consider them my favorites, they take up a huge proportion of the baby name market and deserve my consideration. What are your thoughts about them?