What’s in a name?

We wondered if there was a trend for non-gendered names? And if it matters...

Names are controversial. Every parent has experienced at least a moment of anxiety on choosing a name for their baby, and then once it’s all decided, the big reveal can be awful. Look out for eye rolls, discreet sighing or shock, followed swiftly by ‘ooh that’s unusual/becoming so popular/old-fashioned!/sweet/bold’. The best answer? “Perfect”. But that’s rare, because names are as subjective as they come. 


This year Oliver and Olivia topped the UK’s baby name lists, with roughly 6,000 boys and 5,000 girls taking them as their first given name. Oliver has been on top since 2013, and Olivia just crept back up to number one after a period of being second or third. 

This got us thinking - Oliver and Olivia are two side of the same coin. They are basically the same name. Yet, scrolling through Facebook birth announcements I see boys names called out as ‘strong’ and girls names as ‘gorgeous’, instantly defining the stereotypes that will dog these sweet babes for a lifetime. It makes me wonder if genderless names would help, if they would change or challenge the status quo?

The popular site nameberry.com has a section devoted to unisex names, gender neutral names, and an excellent graph to chart how the usage of some names has swung between boys and girls over the last century or so. They pick Leo, Harley and Sage as names to watch for 2018, all names that suit either gender.

Here in the UK, almost the same amount of boys and girls were named Bobbie in 2016 - slightly more girls in fact, and the same for Remi. Harper is now ranked 44 for girls from having been steadily trundling along as a unisex name. Harry is in second place for boys - how many of the 1132 girls called Harriet are going to also be called Harry? What about number 12 in the girls’ list (Charlotte) and number 7 in the boys’ (Charlie).

So we notice that girls are often given traditional boys names – Bobbie, James, Dylan, Taylor, Ashley and Charlie, but boys are rarely given names thought of as belonging to girls. If you Google ‘girls names for boys’, all the hits are articles for unisex names or ‘boys names for girls’. Girls with boys’ names have always been cool - from Jo Marsh to Blair Waldorf. If someone named their daughter Oliver, I think fewer eyebrows would be raised than if they named their son Olivia.

We want to make sure our daughters can float between the feminine and the masculine and find their own selves. We name our girls soft, delicate, flower names AND we give them the option to shorten to more “serious”, blunt, unisex (that is code for ‘boys’) names. But do we let the boys do the same? Would you name your son Clover? Or Fern? Willow maybe? Dove? Where are the top 100 nature-inspired names for boys? The flowers and trees? The soft and delicate names than no-one bats an eyelid at?

Under the guise of becoming less gender-stereotypical are we actually holding up the same old patriarchal rules? Once a name becomes known as a girls’ name, parents tend to stop naming their boys it (see Marion, Allison, Lesley, Evelyn). The message is should all want to be strong (like a man), or serious (like a man), or powerful (like a man). A girly name might just hold you back, whether you're a girl or a boy. 

In truth, it seems all our agonising over this might be for nothing. There’s no evidence that your name has any impact at all on your outcomes. Despite the popular idea that there is such a thing as nominative determinism, there really is no link between your name and your job (sorry scientists JW Splatt and D Weedon, who wrote a paper on the subject of incontinence). The President of the Supreme Court in the UK is Baroness Hale of Richmond. For the record, her given name is Brenda. 

So maybe the key is, we just need to stop worrying about it. What a name means is all in our own heads. Put aside our prejudices and all names are good for anyone - just pick one you like. Whether this name is ‘strong’ enough or that one is ‘masculine’ enough for our boy is a red herring. We need to think what messages we give, right from birth, to any new baby - named anything at all. Raise a child that has the opportunity to be themselves in whatever way suits them, and it doesn’t matter if they’re called Rainbow Sparkles or Eric Bloodaxe. In the end, it’s not about the name, but the person.