Name Help: River for a boy or a girlName 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!

Meredith writes:

Our first baby is due early in 2023, and we think we might have the perfect name already: River.

My mom’s maiden name was Rivers. She’s the last in her family, so the name ends with her. When I was born, my mom really wanted to use Rivers for my middle name, but my dad thought it was too weird, so I’m Meredith Lynn instead.

(When I learned this as a teenager, I was bummed, because how cool would Rivers have been as a middle name?!)

Naming my child River feels like a great way to honor my mom (and grandparents), and also a way to use the name that could’ve been mine.

My husband is on board, but he thinks it’s more of a girl’s name. I’m fine naming a girl River, but I’d like to use the name if it’s a boy, too. We have middle names in mind that are obviously male/female, if that makes a difference.

What do you think?

Readers, please read on for my response, and leave your thoughtful suggestions in the comments.

Abby replies:

Congratulations on your first child!

A few things leap out at me:

First, this is an amazing way to honor your mom. Both because it directly draws from her family name and because it picks up on her desire to hand the name down to you all those years ago.

Second – and look, this is most of the discussion, right? – there’s really no way to explain why some names strike us as a “boy” or “girl” names.

English has no hard-and-fast rules. Luca and Leo are usually boys, while Luna and Cleo are girls.

The only way to know is to look at usage. And that, of course, is subject to change over time.

So let’s talk about River, the name and the numbers.

Your dad played it safe when you were born, and, indeed, no one was named River(s) much before the 2000s. (Though, yes – I’d also be crushed at missing out on such a cool and meaningful name!)

But today? It’s common for boys and girls.


In 2021, 3,445 boys were named River. That makes it #110 on the most popular boy names list.

An additional 1,862 girls received the name. That translates to #151 for the girls.

For what it’s worth, births/ranks don’t line up neatly. The 100th most popular name for boys was given to 3,707 newborn Xaviers. But the 100th most popular name for girls, Everleigh, accounts for only 2,678 births.


Looking at usage over time can be helpful, too. Why? Because if a name has been given to more boys over a decade or 25 years, well … you’ll meet more boys with that name. And that will probably cement the name as masculine in more people’s minds.

River debuted in the boys’ Top 1000 in the US way back in 1994.

It only joined the girls’ rankings in 2009.



At least, the numbers suggest that River is more likely to be a boy, especially if that River is, say, middle school-aged or older.

But things change all the time, and River feels more like an acceptably unisex name now.

Some of it depends on your point of reference. If River Phoenix is your first thought, it leans boy. But if you’re a sci fi fan, well … River Song and River Tam make this feminine.

And, of course, since River is a named your husband associates with you and your mom, that might make it read feminine to him.


But really, I’m siding with you.

River is an honor name for you, one that works for a son or a daughter.

If anything, the numbers favor River as a boy’s name.

It seems like too good a chance to pass up!


Of course, there’s another option. If your husband just can’t get on board with the idea of a boy named River, you might consider the middle name Rivers.

It’s not quite as direct an honor, but it does close the loop on your middle-name-that-got-away.

Readers, over to you – what would you say to this couple about using River for their firstborn’s name?

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. Just agreeing with everyone else that River reads true unisex to my ear, as someone who hasn’t met anyone IRL with the name, and who only has vague knowledge of fictional characters with it as a name, and who thought River Pheonix was also a fictional character for years.

    I also think Rivers is lovely, but I won’t push for you to use it because you are the one who knows the rhythm of your surname, and how it’ll…flow. 😉

  2. I do not presume a gender when I hear River, but want to pile on the many that have already said it: Rivers is an unexpected delight (also regardless of sex). But whether River or Rivers, it’s a great name. I would use it for your first baby regardless.

  3. Usable for either. In my mind, has more of an adventurous image for a girl, more of a preppy image for a boy, but YMMV. {shrug}

  4. I came by to say the same thing. Rivers makes it all about the family story rather than the gender or style. That one letter makes a huge difference to me.

  5. River seems like a totally gender-neutral name to me, and I don’t assume a gender at all with the name. I’ve come across all genders using the name, including non-binary people.

  6. I agree it can be a beautiful name on any gender. I also think Rivers (using the surname as-is) is delightful. Like others, my first introduction to River on a person was River Phoenix, so it felt ‘boy’ but then my cousin had a little girl named River and so suddenly to me, it’s just her. If I saw it on paper, it’s a name I would 100% not make any assumptions about. I love that you have such a wonderful name to pass down!