What's in a name? Part II
One of my motives for digging into baby names is to better understand how they have been used to assign and embody gender over the years. In my last post, we saw that
- the most common names have historically been heavily gendered;
- the distribution of female names is more even than that of male names; and
- the diversity of names is increasing over time.
In this post, we’ll focus more on gender-nonspecific names, starting with some more generational Top 5 lists. This time around, it wasn’t so clear how to compare two names for the ranking: for example, should Quinn rank higher because it’s more balanced, or should Dylan because it’s more common overall?
I decided to strike a balance between parity and popularity by listing names according to how often they were recorded with their secondary gender. (In the above example, I would place Quinn higher because 24 > 9.)
As it turns out, the ranking method doesn’t make much difference for the first list — only one name appears on both tables for more than one year between 1925 and 1934! Thanks to the lower birthrate during this period, it’s possible that some less common names are missing from the list, but it’s also the case that gender-nonspecific names have become considerably more common since then.
In my grandparents’ day, Francis was in the top half of female names despite being less common than the alternate spelling Frances; it also ranked 39th of 262 among male names.
As BC’s population boomed, so did the percentage of babies given names spanning multiple genders. This trend was led by Leslie, a previously male-exclusive name that gained popularity as a female name during World War II.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the previously-unknown name Kelly rode a gender-symmetric wave of popularity.
Taylor really caught on in my generation: in addition to topping our charts, it was one of the most common names in the ’90s, period.
Over the last decade, Riley has earned the top spot among gender-nonspecific names through a slow but consistent accumulation of namesakes.
When it comes to gender-neutral names, the above lists only tell part of the story. Vital Statistics only records people’s names at birth, not their eventual preferred name, so the half-dozen people I know of as “Chris” show up in different rows of the dataset.
In practice, I suspect that even more people use the same shortened form of names with more heavily gendered variants. I found no fewer than fourteen names — each exclusive to one sex if you go by birth certificates — that could plausibly be shortened to a homophone of Chris. In aggregate, they make a remarkably gender-balanced family!
I’d love to see someone run with this. It’d be pretty neat to see how clusters of names measure up to one another — are there more Chrises or Alexes in my generation? — or a tool to suggest groups of similar-sounding names across multiple genders.