Name Help is a series at Appellation Mountain. Every week, one reader’s name questions will be discussed.
We’re relying on thoughtful comments from the community to help expectant parents narrow down their name decisions. Thank you in advance for sharing your insight!
How do you feel about Emerson for a boy?
We love the Ralph Waldo Emerson reference, and the sound of Emerson, too.
But is it pretentious? Are there any good nicknames for a boy?
Our due date is in August.
Please read on for my response and leave your thoughtful suggestions in the comments.
Congratulations on your first!
Here’s the tricky thing about this question. I’d consider Emerson unisex, and the data backs me up. For calendar year 2021, 1729 and 1223. Actually falling modestly in use. In 2018, those numbers were 1947 and 1242.
But I do have a different reaction to Emerson for a girl versus a boy. While there are plenty of names I like equally, regardless of gender, names often carry a different image when I imagine them as masculine or feminine. (Should they? Maybe not. But I’m probably not alone in this.)
For a girl, Emerson reads like a successor to Madison and Addison. It’s a name that naturally shortens to Emmy, which also makes it a cousin to classic chart-toppers like Emily and Emma.
For a boy, though, it feels different. It’s more Ralph Waldo than Harper’s sister. That makes it maybe a little more traditional and enduring, a name with a certain amount of gravitas.
I think that might be what you’re after, and yet a caution:
Any name used in significant numbers for boys and girls may feel more popular than you expect.
Names like Georgia and Faith are given to girls in similar numbers. The same is true for boys’ names like Malcolm and Tobias. But because Emerson appears on both lists, you’ve significantly increased the chances that you’ll encounter another Emerson.
Still, I’d call Emerson a mainstream choice, even if it isn’t a common one.
Your son would experience his name as perfectly normal, especially in a class with children named Carson and Jackson and Hudson.
Plenty of people – maybe even your son’s grandparents – may find Emerson an unusual name. While it’s been around for ages, and actually appeared in the US Top 500 from the 1880s through the 1920s, it’s still always been relatively rare.
And, of course, the Ralph Waldo association is powerful. Most people have heard of the writer, and his work continues to resonate, ages after he lived.
Now, an interesting question: Is it pretentious?
Not because of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But maybe what you’re feeling is this: there’s sometimes a sense that the only family names you can use are your family names, from your distinguished relatives, preferably with a house on the historic register and maybe a college building or small museum named in their memory.
Maybe it feels a little like you’re naming your child Thurston Howell III. But, hey, that’s a Gilligan’s Island reference. The show left the air in 1967.
The world has changed dramatically since then. Names like Carter and Madison – no family connections required – have long been popular favorites.
I know “everyone is doing it” isn’t necessarily a satisfying answer. But that’s pretty much it: surnames as given names are completely normal now. Feel free to dismiss any lingering sense that it’s too try-hard.
And the last question: what can you nickname a boy Emerson?
Before we talk about nicknames, consider that kids are much less likely to use nicknames today. The number of kids I know who are Sebastian-not-Seb and Isabella-not-Bella is significant.
And then factor in that names that don’t conform to gender are less of a concern than ever before. Even with kids.
They’re growing up in a world of boy and girl Rivers, Charlies, and Rileys. Emerson fits right in.
In fact, I imagine you could call your son Emmy at home and it wouldn’t be a thing.
But why not just Em/M? It brings to mind lots of single-syllable masculine nicknames: Ben, Sam, Dan, Joe.
If a middle name isn’t set, you might also choose something starting with J. Emerson Jasper = EJ, which I think works quite well. (Or Emerson Joseph, Emerson Jude, Emerson Jones.)
And there’s always Sonny, from the -son ending. Sonny is big in England right now. It struck me as odd when I first saw it inching up the popularity charts, but I heard it on a baby (in England) a few years ago, and it was pretty darling.
Overall, Emerson has a lot going for it. It’s a great name for a son – polished, fun to say, with plenty of appealing associations, and a very current feeling, too.
But let’s open this up to the community for some more opinions.
Consider this a resounding yes to Emerson for a boy. I LOVE it for a boy. It’s ok for a girl, but for some reason I can’t explain, I have always preferred it as a boy’s name.
I don’t find Emerson pretentious. Preppy maybe? I know one boy Emerson and his sister has a surname name too. For nicknames, I’m loving Emmer as suggested! I know two Everetts and they are both called Evie at home, so maybe Emmy will come easily.
I think its a great name and I agree that it really carries the classic, literary feeling on a boy. Remy could be a cute nickname as well.
My daughter is Emerson! I had fully intended on using the nickname Emery but once she arrived, she’s always just been Emerson ✨
Megan Kuchta says
i agree with Abby and Allison. I love the suggestion of Walden, and also add the nicknames Walt & Denny to that. You could also go with Emmerich, who could go by Merrick, Eric or Rick/y, Rich/y. Raoul or Rollo also work, but back to the nickname question. Though I suppose you could do Raoul nn Rollo. Traditional middle names that are quite nice with Emmerson are James and Julius. Less traditional Jericho is quite nice as well.
As a nerdy English teacher, I love Emerson for a boy! I might use M as a nickname. I’m also loving Thoreau or Walden as boy names
Yes, I thought of Thoreau the whole time I working on this, too!
And I think M is awesome. Very James Bond.
Alison Doherty says
I think Emerson for a boy is fine! Although as a teacher when I see the name on a list, I now automatically think it’s a girl first. One thought is if you e considered – Walden for a boy? It has a similar transcendental vibe, while being more rare and reading very masculine to me. Plus it has the adorable nicknames Wally or Waldo built if you want them. Maybe it’s a little more out there, but I think it would be so cute.
Dont know why there’s a tonne of explanation regarding its usage as a girl name, dont think Andy was questioning about its unisex appeal or if it was giving him hesitation.
This is something Nameberry did (and probably still does) constantly, which is when a male name that is also being co-opted by girls, they constantly warn parents to watch out cause it also being worn by team pink – while the opposite was never mentioned as a caution (they used to have seperate pages for the same name depending on the sex – and the advice differed greatly depending on whether it was a boy or a girl, for girls no caution given).
Personally, I think nickname Emmy works fine on a boy, but you can call him Em or Emmer too.
For me, the issue is this: when parents want something uncommon-ish, a name’s status as unisex can double – or more – the odds that they’ll meet another kid with the same name. It’s something I always note when a parent asks me about, say, Logan for a girl. It’s relatively uncommon for a girl, but SO popular for boys that it probably will disappoint. Better to go with Linden or Langley or Whitaker or something with a similar style, but truly small numbers of use IF the goal is an uncommon name.
My kids have been in classes + summer camps with repeating names, like a girl Jordan + a boy Jordan. It’s never been an issue EXCEPT those were the only names that repeated. My sense is that kids mind repeating names much less than their parents do. But if you’re going to great lengths to choose something different, well … then yes, looking at both sides of the data matters.
One year my son’s class had one Ava, one Liam, and two Micahs – one girl, one boy. The Micah moms both mentioned their surprise, though I never got the sense that anyone – parent or child – was especially bothered by it.
My son is Alex; we have friends with a girl Alex, but then, we chose his name knowing it was common, so I expected it to repeat. (And have generally been pleased that it hasn’t repeated NEARLY as much as I thought it might.)