When I was in school, it was not unusual to have girls named Randi and Bobbi and Billie, but they were distinguishable by their alternate spellings. But consider the genders of Sandy, Jan, Gerry, Pat, Chris, Jackie, and Jamie. You’ve got a 50-50 shot.
Now there are girls running around named Jordan and Logan, Madison and Morgan, which sound more like the names of old cars and presidents than girls. In 2010, the 11th most popular girls’ name was Addison. Linguistically, when surnames came into prominence, -son meant “son of.” So what’s it doing on a little girl?
In some ways, this isn’t a new phenomenon. If you go back to the early part of the 20th century, you find actress Billie Burke (Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz). The women’s golfing pro in The Great Gatsby was named Jordan Baker. In Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Theresa Wright’s character went by Charlie (though whether it was short for Charlotte or Charlene, I don’t know). And generations earlier than that, you had male and female variations of names: Francis and Frances, Marion and Marian, John and Joanne, Bernard and Bernadette, Sidney and Sydney. Not to mention men named Evelyn, Lynn, and Lindsay.
But it seems as though, more and more, girls are gravitating toward names that mask their gender, if only as nicknames. Alexis and Alexandra become Alex. Samantha becomes Sam. Andrea becomes Andy. As women achieve gender equality, they also seem on the way to giving up their gender distinction.
I have a sneaking suspicion that one hundred years from now, you won’t be able to tell someone’s gender from their name. I’ve known both a male and female Galen, and a male and female Kelsey. On good days, I can distinguish Morgan Freeman from Morgan Fairchild, and Glenn Close from Glenn Ford. Nor is this purely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Chandra, Ramala, Mandeep, and other Indian names are considered both male and female.
I have no scientific evidence for this theory of unisexual names. In fact, in 2011, the most popular girls’ names were Sophia, Isabella, Emma, Olivia, Ava, Emily, and Abigail. These neither sound like cars nor presidents nor surnames – they’re classical, even somewhat old-fashioned names. But I suspect this is a fad.
There are a few insights I can draw from this trend I’m perceiving. First, it only seems to go in one direction. There aren’t more men named Nancy or Patsy (at least in my circles). There are only a couple of exceptions to this. Merle is statistically more likely to be a girl’s name – but tell that to singer Merle Haggard. Then there’s actor Mandy Patinkin (whose real first name is Mandel). One of my favorite quotes from the ‘80s came from a newspaper article about the San Francisco-based movie Maxie (the title character of which was female; see graphic), starring Glenn Close and Mandy Patinkin. “Only in San Francisco,” the writer quipped, “would you find a movie where the female lead was named Glenn and the male lead was named Mandy.”
Second, medical practitioners are going to have to get a lot more savvy. The mother of my best friend from high school was named Jeff. She once told me the story of the great confusion on the part of a hospital radiologist who couldn’t figure out why the x-rays of someone named Jeff clearly had female breasts.
Finally, there are certain male names that are never going to be fashionable for women, because even men with these names aren’t thrilled with them … like “Howard.”