Friday, July 3, 2009

Farewell Terri, Kerry, Frances and Leigh: Trend Against Unisex Baby Names

How do names suddenly catch on? Why are kindergarten teachers wiping the noses of Brittanys and Mias, Coopers and Rileys, yet nursing homes accommodate women named Mavis and Edna and men called Theodore and Cecil? I'm not sure why names fall in and out of favour so quickly. Perhaps each generation wishes to separate its identity from that of its parents, and may even seek to reclaim the identity of the generation that was cast off before that. "Old-fashioned" names can magically transform into hip originality.

A research company in Australia has released details of the top baby names in Australia in 2009. What interested me most about the results, more than the return of once-dated names like Isabella, is McCrindle Research's observation that "Australian parents are consistently registering baby names that are undoubtedly gendered." The trend they identify for "soft-sounding" girls' names, versus "firm-sounding" boys' names is I think well-known. A good example given by linguist David Crystal is the fact that "Marion Morrison" would not have made a masculine-sounding cowboy while "John Wayne" was short, sharp and strong.

What is seemingly new is the disappearance of unisex or gender-neutral names. The researchers involved have proposed that this change reflects the "conservative side" of Generation X parents. Just which names would Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke choose for their children? Well, actually, short-haired, almost-forty Winona has yet to reproduce, and Ethan Hawke has three children, including a darling daughter, Clementine. From the researchers' assumption it seems that Australian parents wish to more firmly locate their children as feminine or masculine right from the get-go. Coupled with the proliferation of "Jacks" and "Williams" you could wonder whether we're carrying misplaced nostalgic for the gender ideals of more than a hundred years ago, when the sexes were generally confined to separate spheres of home and public work.

Is it also part of the backlash against feminism that parents feel that the blurring of gender roles- and names with blurry genders- are just too complicated? Wouldn't it be easier if lines were redrawn as they once were so everyone knew where (and how!) to stand? Mia (proud owner of the most popular female baby name in 2008) will be at her plastic replica ironing board with wrinkled clothing in hand, while Jack (similarly popular for males in 2008) will be working on a woodwork project with his miniature tool set.

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