Posted by Jay Livingston
Fashions in names are like fashions in clothes in at least one respect – they change more quickly for females than for males. When it comes to naming a boy, the same old styles will do, and very few seem out of date. But with girls, it’s easy to think of names like Ethel, Edna, Shirley, Doris – popular at one time, but today, nobody’s would give that name to their daughter. But William, Richard, and Robert stick around generation after generation . . . at least until now.
That gender difference seems to be changing. Even as recently as 1980, six of the top 10 boys names had been in the top 10 a decade earlier. For girls, only four remained in that group.
That was then. In the most recent decade, the turnover in the Top 10 has been more rapid for boys than for girls. Six girls names but only four boys names stayed on that list through the decade.
Among the less common names, volatility is much greater. The biggest leaps upward in rank occur far down on the list. Here are the biggest movers in 2013.
If fashions in boys names are changing almost as rapidly as changes in girls names, what are we to make of this convergence? We’re moving away from those once durable names – the Roberts and the Williams – and we’re putting more value on less frequent and more nearly unique names. Philip Cohen (here) speculates that the trend towards more individual baby names reflects a change in how we think about children. In contrast to 19th-century assumptions about children, we now see each child as a unique individual, important to us for her or his special personality. The child’s place in the family is all about interpersonal relations rather than economic contributions. In Viviana Zelizer’s famous phrase about this change (roughly in the period from the 1870s to the 1930s), the child has become “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”
Gender differences might be following a similar pattern, with more attention paid to the emotions and social life of boys, their unique personalities, rather than simply their economic abilities and prospects. We see a movie like “Boyhood,” nod our heads appreciatively, and say, “Yes, that is what boyhood is all about.” It’s hard if not impossible to imagine a similar story told in 1850 and based on 1850s ideas and assumptions about boys. It would be similarly difficult for Americans of 1850 to understand Linklater’s film (which if you haven't seen, you should).
A century ago, a good father could be emotionally distant so long as he was a reliable breadwinner. Now, we expect dads to take part in the emotional life of the family, once pretty much a female preserve. Maybe the trend in boys names is a further sign of the gradual erosion of old and rigid distinctions between boys and girls, men and women. If so, I wonder if the people who most object to Jayden and Landon and Grayson* and to the greater variety and variability of boys names are also those who insist most strongly on maintaining those traditional gender-role boundaries.
* Boys names ending in “n” have had an impressive rise in popularity. The final “n” now dwarfs names ending in the other 25 letters. For graphs, see this 2009 post.