There’s been quite a bit of discussion about unisex names in the name-blog community recently, such as Appellation Mountain’s In Defense of Riley Anne and Evan Marie: Ten Reasons Boys’ Names on Girls Are Not a Sign of End Times and Waltzing More than Matilda’s Help! A Girl Stole My Boy Name!
As both articles point out, using a boy’s name for a girl is not a new phenomemon. It was actually common in the Middle Ages, and while Latin feminine forms were often used in formal records (Pipe Rolls, Court Rolls, etc), there is plenty of evidence to show that most, if not all, girls who appear as Alexandra, Philippa and Nicholaa, etc were in fact called Alexander, Philip and Nicholas. Nicholas is known to have survived as a girl’s name in Scotland into the Early Modern Period.
Next, the names of surname origin. Girls have been given surnames as first names since the trend first began in the 16th Century. Douglas Howard, Lady Sheffield (d.1608) is a good early example. They have been used as girls’ names ever since. Not on a par with their use for boys, perhaps, but still examples exist from every generation until the 19th, since when it has been growing. And many other names have a long history of use as unisex names – Julian and Christian, for instance, while now considered boys’ names, were both more commonly found as girls’ names in the Middle Ages.
So why shouldn’t a girl be given any name of surname origin now any less than then? And what does it matter that it first became known as a boy’s name – or a girl’s name? But the latter rarely crops us as an issue, because the anti-unisex camp have one terror and one terror alone – boy’s names used for girls. Full stop. End of. It is a terror of a name becoming considered ‘girly’ or ‘too feminine’ – not becoming ‘boyish’ or ‘too masculine’. The underlying fear being that a boy so named will himself become ‘girly’ and ‘feminine’…
At the heart of all of this lies a much deeper issue of far greater concern. The fact that, when we are supposed to be living in an age of equality between the sexes, society puts pressure upon parents to differentiate between boys and girls from birth far more intensely than ever before. A hundred years ago, women didn’t have the vote in most of the English-speaking world, and yet if you encountered a toddler in a park, you would have struggled to tell whether it was a boy or a girl without asking. They were dressed identically; little boys often had their hair in curls, little girls in bobs. It wasn’t even uncommon in past centuries for boys to be dressed in pink. And yet when one brave Canadian family decided to recreate this ‘genderlessness’ of a baby (if you missed it, here is the UK Daily Mail’s typically horror-stricken account), they are met mostly with cries of outrage and out-pourings of ridicule.
Unsurprisingly, it’s largely the anti-unisex name faction who are most likely to disapprove of little boys with long hair, little boys playing with dolls, little boys wearing pink, or dressing up in Disney princess dresses. What they don’t seem to realise is that regardless of what sex we are, we all have feminine and masculine sides – and this is nothing to do with sexual-orientation. The East acknowledges it in Yin and Yang. But here in the West, millennia of ruthless, patriarchal rule – in which half the population was essentially enslaved just because of their sex – have deeply indoctrinated society into hacking the feminine aspect out of boys from birth.
No wonder the West is in such a mess.
Attitudes such as this reveal that we are still far from achieving equality. If you’re in the anti-unisex name camp, just pause, and ask yourself these questions:
- Why, precisely, do we need to differentiate between the sexes in a name at all? Why does it matter for you to be able to tell what sex someone is on paper? Isn’t it the person themselves, their qualities, talents, interests, expertise etc, that matter?
- What exactly is wrong with ‘feminine’? Why is it wrong to allow a boy to connect with his feminine side, when it is a fact that a man who is in touch with his feminine side is more likely to resolve issues through discussion than through force or violence?
I’ll end with a quote from the American novelist Dorothy Allison: Class, race, sexuality, gender and all other categories by which we categorize and dismiss each other need to be excavated from the inside. Eradicating all this nonsense from names would certainly be a good place to start.