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

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.

Percent of newborns given a gender-nonspecific name (at least 10 births/year in both datasets)

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.

Proportion of newborns given Francis as a female name (top) or as a male name (bottom, shaded)

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.

Proportion of newborns given Leslie as a female name (top) or as a male name (bottom, shaded)

In the 1950s and ’60s, the previously-unknown name Kelly rode a gender-symmetric wave of popularity.

Proportion of newborns given Kelly as a female name (top) or as a male name (bottom, shaded)

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.

Proportion of newborns given Taylor as a female name (top) or as a male name (bottom, shaded)

Over the last decade, Riley has earned the top spot among gender-nonspecific names through a slow but consistent accumulation of namesakes.

Proportion of newborns given Riley as a female name (top) or as a male name (bottom, shaded)

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.