In Defense of Riley Anne and Evan Marie: Ten Reasons Boys’ Names on Girls Are Not a Sign of End Times

by appellationmountain on July 2, 2011

Boy and girl posed, three-quarter length, stan... Image via Wikipedia

Feeling feisty? Head to a message board and announce that you’re naming your daughter Addison. Or Quinn. Or Mason.

Then run for cover.

Sure, some people will respond positively. But depending on the forum, you could also find yourself accused of thievery, trendiness, and general bad taste.

I’m sympathetic to parents who feel they can’t use a name they’d long loved, for fear that their son Delaney will be scarred by sharing his name with girls. But I’m not sure a girl named Ryan is a sign of the coming apocalypse.

Make no mistake, this is a touchy subject. And yet, I’m finding it easy to defend the practice of borrowing from the boys.

10. We have a long history of borrowing our daughters’ names from boys.

Before there was Madison, there was Shirley. Charlotte Bronte used it for the heroine of her 1849 novel, explaining that Shirley’s dad had wanted a son. Shirley was gaining steadily for girls in the US when child star Shirley Temple became a household name. The name peaked at #2 in the 1930s, and while she’s no longer popular, it is hard to imagine parents using Shirley for a son today.

There are countless stories like this, names that transitioned from male to female several generations back. The average, non-name-obsessed person is only dimly aware of the switch.

9. She’ll hate her name.

Yes, she probably will. But only because lots of kids hate their names at some point. Should you go the opposite route, it is possible that she’ll find her overly feminine name stifling. (Nymphadora Tonks, anyone?)

You Can’t Call It “It” featured a story of a girl named Tyson who would have much rather been called Marie. But for every Tyson, there’s a girl called Kyle who finds her boyish name pleasing.

8. Many names have an ambi-gendered past.

Purists would like every name to correspond to pink or blue, end of discussion. It is easy to believe that all names were created with a clear gender identity – Mary for girls, John for boys – and we’re the ones who have mucked it up.

Not so.

Take Evelyn, an off-cited early theft. The male writer Evelyn Waugh was married to a woman named Evelyn. Evelyn was a surname that caught on as a given name for boys. The surname traces its roots back to the feminine appellation Aveline. Aveline died out, but variant Evelina was revived in the nineteenth century. All of a sudden, Evelyn sounded just right for a girl. I’ve spotted at least one aristocratic family tree with men and woman named Evelyn over the generations.

There are more stories like that than you might imagine, from obscurities like Ismay to chart-topping choices like Madison.

7. Stealing from boys isn’t fair.

Maybe. But very often a name was scarcely used for either gender when it is first discovered by the parents of girls. Lauren has some history as a short form of the masculine Laurence, but was decidedly obscure when Betty Joan Perske chose it as her professional name, becoming a major Hollywood star as Lauren Bacall. Before Madison made a splash, she hadn’t charted for either gender since the 1950s.

The most common pattern is that a gender-ambiguous name will rise for both genders, at least for a few years – like Shannon or Avery. In fact, Avery currently stands at #23 for girls, the highest ranking for girls ever – and at #210 for boys, also the highest ranking for boys ever.

6. Plenty of families have long traditions of passing down surnames without regard to gender.

I’ve met families from the American South and New England, too, who pass on family surnames without regard to gender. When a neighbor announced that their firstborn would receive her maiden name regardless of gender, the practice seemed nicely egalitarian. If your maiden name happens to be Parker or Bailey, it would be a shame to never pass the name on just because you have daughters instead of sons.

5. Why should certain family names be reserved for boys?

In response to #6, some insist that families should reserve the masculine choices for future sons, and look elsewhere for a daughter’s name. Grandma Eleanor, maybe.

But there are compelling reasons to give these names to our daughters. Kate Garry Hudson received her masculine middle because her Uncle Garry had passed away shortly before her birth.

Why not save it for a son? Sometimes that makes sense. But in an age of smaller families, it is not always realistic. Imagine that you’re 42, and this is your first child – and almost certainly your last chance to use Cameron. It would be a shame to forgo your favorite name in favor of something less meaningful.

4. It isn’t parents using a name for girls that makes it feel feminine.

Some parents probably do look through the boys’ side of the baby name guide to find options for a daughter. But most of the choices feel appropriate because of other names that are current. Ava and Emily combined to make Avery a powerhouse. Emerson follows Top Ten picks like Emma and Madison.

3. Not every boys’ name used for girls “goes pink.”

In some cases, girls are borrowing a popular boys’ name, but it hasn’t diminished its appeal for boys. Ryan has appeared in the US Top 1000 for girls since the 1970s, but that didn’t push Ryan out of the boys’ Top Twenty. The same is true of Evan, Devon, and Jordan, to name just a few.

There are all cases where a name that temporarily seemed unwearable for a boy makes a quick recovery. Jamie rose for girls and boys in the 1970s. Today it isn’t especially stylish for either gender, but a growing number of boys named James or Jameson favor Jamie as a short form.

2. In our enlightened age, it seems possible that some names will remain gender neutral.

Plenty of nouveau coinages seem almost deliberately gender neutral. Peyton and Jayden are popular for girls as well as boys. In other cases, spelling can signal the name’s gender. I’d expect Rylee to be a girl, and chances are that’s correct – Rylee ranked #102 in the US for girls in 2010. But Rylee also ranked #723 for boys – and is climbing, just his feminine counterpart.

Depending on your perspective, Tate is either just one letter removed from Kate, or maybe a sound-alike to Jake. If you’re open to names that are new, chances are that a certain amount of ambiguity will follow. But there’s reason to believe that Tate Elizabeth and Tate Alexander can share the same playground.

1. But there aren’t any good names left for boys!

The right name can be the right name, regardless of gender. If your beloved grandfather was Courtney, you might name son after him regardless of concerns about being mistaken for a girl – even if you call him C.J. And parents do seem to be daring to consider gender-shifting choices like Robin and Kelly for their sons.

It is true that parents have always exercised a greater degree of restraint when it comes to our sons’ names. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a great option out there for every boy. The same freedom that lets us consider boyish choices for our daughters lets us pick from a wider range of options for our sons, too. That’s a good thing – even if does make you hesitate over some of your favorite boys’ names.

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