The Origins of Androgyny in Baby Names

Apologies in advance for the abundance of baby name post recently. I had another thought after posting yesterday, tracing some of the names Lieberson, Dumais, and Baumann (2000) identified as following the pattern of androgyny they identify in their paper using baby name data from births of white babies in Illinois.

In Philip Cohen’s post, he identified the 25 least sex-dominant names in 2018. He was interested in the relative prevalence of parents selecting extremely sex-dominant names for their children and how that prevalence might have changed. But it made me think that, using that method we might also be able to trace the various patterns through which androgynous names become androgynous. So, I charted shifts in the numbers of babies (by sex) given each of the names Philip identified in his post (below).

25 least sex-dominant names

If you look at these names, you might note that some follow similar trajectories. Look, for instance, at the trajectories of the names Finley, Oakley, Remy, Justice, Jael, Ocean, and Gentry, for instance (charted alone below). When Lieberson, Dumais, and Baumann wrote about androgynous names, they presented these names as “accidentally androgynous.” And certainly some androgynous names follow this pattern. The name “Jamie” might be an example of this. Jamie was a name given to both boys and girls in roughly equal number through about 1980 when it started to become a more popular name (still among both boys and girls) and then the name drops off dramatically for boys and becomes a “girl” name… until 2018, when it dropped in popularity enough among girls that it is again among the names that are less sex-dominant. That the name was selected for both boys and girls through 1980 could have been a product of “accident” in the way Lieberson, Dumais, and Baumann present it – parents selecting the name might not have intentionally selected a name because it was androgynous. Rather, the name might have simply become androgynous. But Finley, Oakley, Remy, Justice, Jael, Ocean, and Gentry do not follow that pattern.

likely intentionally androynous names.png

These names all seem to emerge relatively rapidly and are used in roughly equal numbers to name boys and girls. This pattern might be an illustration of what androgynous names appearing not by accident, but by design–parents intentionally selecting androgynous names. I know many parents who intentionally selected names they felt were androgynous. Alex Haden wrote about the phenomenon in the New York Times in 2016.

I’m not aware of any studies that trace different routes to androgeneity in baby names (though that may be because this is well outside my research area). But that strikes me as an interesting idea. If names have different pathways to androgeneity, it might be the case that these different paths are connected to distinct fortunes of androgynous names. If there is a way to identify what we might call “likely intentionally androgynous names” from “likely accidentally androgynous names” for instance, we could look into whether the names have more longevity and whether they show gender asymmetrical paths following becoming more popular.

Some of the names appear to follow really different trajectories for boys and girls. Some look like likely candidates for Lieberson, Dumais, and Baumann’s argument about the contaminating effect of femininity for boys names. “Jamie” seems to follow that pattern most clearly from the names Philip identified. And “Dakota” might also follow this pattern (though I’m wondering if there’s a high-profile woman named “Dakota” who became prominent in the early 1990s – it’s too early, I think, for Dakota Fanning).

Dakota and Jamie

What’s difficult about this is that the names Philip identified are currently androgynous. And Lieberson, Dumais, and Baumann’s analysis examines the fates of androgynous names. We can’t see the fates of the names that were most androgynous in 2018 yet. It will take time for those patterns to be visible. All I’m doing here is examining the various paths each of these names took to becoming androgynous in 2018. But lots of these names appear to follow radically different paths to androgyny.

I don’t have any big idea, and I’m not pursuing this. But this time I read Lieberson, Dumais, and Baumann’s article, I was struck by their characterization of androgynous names as “accidental,” examining the “chance factors that affect the gender makeup of a name.” It’s not only chance factors that produce androgynous names. Some are androgynous on purpose. And I wonder if and how that might matter.

One thought on “The Origins of Androgyny in Baby Names

  1. Pingback: Why aren’t female Charlies killing the name Charles? | Family Inequality

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