Some parents heartily dislike the practice of adopting surnames as first names or choosing a name once reserved for boys for a daughter. But it is worth remembering that neither practice is new – they’re just very, very popular circa 2008.

Today’s Name of the Day is one of a cluster that’s been used for girls for so long that it sounds decidedly feminine – and perhaps a bit dated. Thanks to Another for suggesting Whitney.

Whitney first debuted in the US Top 1000 back in 1962 at #757. She probably sounded right at home with the quite current Kimberly and Nancy. Like many newly discovered names, she owes her popularity to the small screen. The actress Whitney Blake (born Nancy Whitney) was a frequent guest star on popular TV series – Perry Mason, Bonanza and Route 66 among them. In the mid-60s, she was part of the Baxter family, cared for by the housekeeper-heroine of the successful sitcom Hazel.

One pair of parents influenced by Ms. Blake were the Houstons. Whitney Houston, in turn, helped propel her given name into the Top 100 (in 1985) and to a peak of #32 in 1986 and 1987. As Ms. Houston’s musical success gave way to personal drama, the use of her name fell as quickly as it had risen.

Today, Whitney is a not-quite-obscure #563. But before the celebs, Whitney was best-known as a surname, place name or a masculine moniker.

On the map, you’ll find the original Whitney in Herefordshire, England. It’s been there since at least the 11th century. Chances are the name refers to the River Wye – the Old English hwit means white; ey means water. It could also be related to eg, for island, or even a variant of Hwita, which became the ever-so-common surname White.

If Whitney sounds like a pampered high schooler driving her own convertible, that’s probably because it is the surname of one of the most financially successful and socially prominent American families. The Whitneys trace their lineage to John Whitney’s 1653 arrival in Massachusetts and are well-known in philanthropy and thoroughbred horse racing, those two most upper-crust pursuits. In New York, you can visit The Whitney Museum of American Art, established by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, was another notable member of the tribe.

Whitney daughters sometimes bestowed their maiden name on sons, and they were not alone. As a boy’s name, it appeared in the Top 1000 in every decade since 1880. Civil rights activist Whitney Young made the name especially appealing in the 60s.

As Whitney became firmly established as a top choice for girls, it disappeared from the boys’ rankings, last appearing in 1988.

Whitney has much in common, both in sound and origins, with other 20th century favorites:

  • Another name borrowed from the famous, 20s and 30s favorite Shirley;
  • Depression-era and early Boomer hit Beverly;
  • 50s and 60s appellations like Tracy, Stacey and Kelly;
  • 70s discoveries-turned-80s staples like Ashley, Courtney, Lindsay/Lindsey, Sydney and Kelsey;
  • Current chart-toppers like Hayley, Riley, Bailey, Aubrey and Delaney;
  • Newer discoveries like Hadley, Paisley and Waverley.

Many of these names remain current for decades – Ashley has just barely left the Top Ten. And Whitney doesn’t sound as dated as Shirley or Stacey, nor has she been frequently subjected to the tortured respellings of Haylee, Bailie and Ryleigh. With the winner of last May’s America’s Next Top Model wearing this name, it has received some favorable attention in recent months.

So while Whitney doesn’t feel fresh or original, if the name has meaning for you, it’s not an unthinkable choice. She won’t share her name with many, and it actually sounds more distinctive than the worn-out Ashley or too-cute Tracy and Bailey.

Just please don’t spell it Whitnee or Whitni.

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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  1. I know this post is old, but I couldn’t resist commenting on my own name! I have always had a love-hate relationship with it, though looking back, ‘love’ might be a bit strong. Like, maybe. I have always received many compliments on it, and at the very least people always remember it — good in my career as a journalist — but I have always wrestled with the boyish, snobby feel of it. My hubby loves it; I feel it looks pathetic and cheap against his regal name, Constantine.

  2. DH, was Pretty in Pink the source of the rich-girl Whitney? I’m sure *some* 80s flick used it for a snobby queen bee type, but darned if I can puzzle it out. (I thought it might be “A Different World,” but she was Whitley!) It must be a fleeting reference, because I can’t unearth it on a search, but I’m sure she’s out there. 🙂

    Lola, I agree with you completely – Kelly and Tracy are fabulous on boys. I don’t care for them on girls. As for Shannon, I live a few doors down from a (male) Shannon who has seen combat in Iraq and Somalia. (He also bakes cupcakes and made custom tee shirts for our kids.) Again, the name wears better on a he than a she.

    I’ve often wondered if we will see the reclaiming of some of these once-masculine monikers. Much has been made of the recent tendency of some names to “freeze” as gender neutral choices – Peyton is the most frequently cited example, but Jordan, Cameron, Riley and Bailey come to mind, too.

    Personally, I’d love to see Alexis come back as a boys’ name. I don’t care for it on a girl, but love it on a son – then again, I’m biased. I think Alexei is about as boyish as it gets. 🙂

  3. Hippy – I agree with you. It’s very dated snobby. I think that’s why I love it so much! I feel like it’s a throwback to the glorious 1980s and girls in Eva Joia clothing, opaque tights with mini hearts on them, Cabbage Patch Kids, etc. I think it’s a fun, reminiscent name – and while I never actually knew a Whitney, to me it screams snobby-snobby. I just love it 🙂

  4. Whitney just seems to Pretty In Pink to me . . . datedly snobby. Now, I had a (male) professor whose first name was DeWitt in Grad School and I thought that hit the right “old money” note, but Whitney just seems obnoxious in how hard it’s trying.

  5. I heald off posting a bit to see if I might find some reedeeming feature of Whiteny’s but alas, after stewing over it all day, I can say I intensely dislike Whitney. Surnames don’t belong on girls unless they’re family and then only in the middle, I firmly believe. Whit does nothing for me, not friendly, warm, or happy sounding. Whitney’s cold, stand-offish and a get-ahead. Not my cup of tea at all, I’m afraid.

    I say time for the guys to take these worn out monikers back and wear them proudly:

    Shirley, Beverly, Tracy, Stacey and Kelly (I actually know a girl Tracy who’s partnered with a guy Cary for the last 20 years and I have a good friend Kelly; guy). Wicked sexy Kelly is on the proper sex. How about Shannon, too? I know a surname Shannon, Again, wicked sexy on a guy!
    Ashley, Courtney, Lindsay, Sydney and Kelsey – Ashley Wilkes always comes to mind for Ashley first & foremost. Milquetoast perhaps, but still male. Courtney would be preppy on a guy and I honestly don’t mind Sydney as long as Great Grandpa Sidney stays masculine. I do know a grown Sydney girl who loathes her name however. And Kelsey Grammer is my poonly assocation with Kelsey. Gelsey’s the soundalike I can see on a girl!
    As for the more recent ones, Hayley, Reily, Bailey, Delaney, Hadley & Paisley are just plain ugly whilst Waverly is crackers.

    So, surnames for girls? Not unless they’re family and then only in the middle. Ugh.