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The Evolution of Unisex Names

Using gender-neutral names is a common practice today. Learn about the history of the practice here.

In this article, you will find:

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The Evolution of Unisex Names

Name Dropping

Keep an eye on Hollywood for names in transition from male to unisex to female. When a name is associated with a famous person, that association can accelerate that name's evolution from male to unisex, or from unisex to female. The popularity of child actress Shirley Temple quickly moved Shirley from unisex to feminine; Glenn moved into the unisex category thanks to actor Glenn Ford and bandleader Glenn Miller.

What's in a Name

Many unisex names begin as place names or occupational names and come into common usage as given names for boys.

The reason that some monikers can easily be used for either sex is that many common names are derived from the same sources. John, for example, became Joan, Joanna, and Siobhan pretty early on in the history of naming, with creative forms like Johntha coming on much later. Many other classic names also have somewhat of a dual personality as well, like Alexander/Alexandria, Paul/Paula, Patrick/Patricia, and others.

What distinguishes these names from unisex names is their separate male and female forms. Parents who want to give their daughter a name that pays tribute to Charles, for example, are going to choose one of its feminine forms or derivatives, such as Charlotte or even Carol, a feminine form of the masculine name Carl, which is derived from Charles. And you never see these feminine forms crossing over to masculine use. In the world of naming, there truly isn't a boy named Sue, despite the famous song by Johnny Cash. But there are a few named Mary, including one of American cinema's most legendary tough guys.

You Can Call Me Marion, or You Can Call Me Duke

What's in a Name

Although unisex names can be found to a certain extent in other languages and cultures, this naming pattern is peculiar to the United States and has yielded a pool of transgender names that are today considered distinctly American, such as Cody, Brett, and Taylor.

While no one knows for sure how unisex names really got started, it was probably the growing use of feminine forms of masculine names that prompted parents to appropriate other names that were once considered each gender's sole property. Some of these names were changed very little as they made their transfer from sex to sex. Others received new spellings that made them look more feminine.

In time, some of these names became so broadly used as feminine names that they almost completely lost their original male identities, such as:

  • Marion. This is a French variant of Mary, usually given to boys to honor the Virgin Mary or to place the bearer under her protection. Even so, it has such a strong connotation as a woman's name that John Wayne, about the most famous Marion who ever lived, got rid of it in a hurry at the beginning of his movie career. As it's spelled here, it's still considered a masculine name, although it's rarely used for either gender anymore. Exchange the “o” for an “a” and you have the feminine form, although both spellings have been used for women.
  • Leslie. This Scottish or Gaelic place name became a surname first and then a boys' name before the girls took it over. The standard spelling doesn't change when used for girls, but there are a number of variants, like Leslea, Lesley, and Lezlie. While it's almost entirely used as a girls' name now, there are a few male Leslies still running around.

  • Adrian. This name, which means “from Adria,” a northern Italian city, first gained popularity in Britain and still has a British ring to it. Spell it a little differently—Adrienne, for example—and it's a fairly popular girls' name. It's probably in broader use today as a girls' name, especially in the U.S., but parents are still using it for boys as well.
  • Beverly. This Old English place name, which means “beaver stream,” was also originally used as a surname. From there it became a name that was used by both sexes as a first name. Today, if it's used at all, it's usually given to a girl.

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