So take, for example, unisex names. Parents who pick a name for their child - and for now I'm thinking mostly about daughters - that could be used for the opposite sex often are going for a certain effect. They might be envisioning/assuming/hoping that their child will be a bit of a tomboy. They might like that it seems daring. They might think a masculine name will make people take their child more seriously. Or they might be going for contrast. Being named something like Alex can underscore a person's natural femininity.
I found a peer reviewed article at one point (trying to find it to provide a link) that found that in the 1980s, college educated mothers were especially likely to masculinize their daughter's name...pick Lauren over Laura, for example. This seems to track with 1980s feminism pretty well to me. My question is whether that trend for unisex names is like shoulder pads...something that is eventually going to go out of style...or fairly constant in their appeal.
The first way to look at this is just look for popular unisex names across generations.*
- 2013: Five definitely unisex names in the top 20 (Addison, Madison, Avery, Harper and Aubrey), and one that might have counted as unisex historically (Evelyn)
- 1983: Three: Erin, Kimberly, and Ashley
- 1953: The only even kind of unisex name I can find in the top 20 is Carol...but Carol was a reasonably common name for men in the generation before, so I'm counting it.
- 1933: Five...Shirley, Jean, Joyce, Frances, Carol
- 1903: Only Frances
So unisex is definitely having a moment right now and is a more significant trend than it has been since my grandmother's generation. But what I'd really like to do is go out and interview parents from each of these generations and figure out WHY they liked the names that they liked. Did they imagine the Carols growing up to be assertive and confident? Was Jean supposed to be good at sports? Or was Jean supposed to look like this. While being good at sports?
*My process for picking out unisex names is to first pick the names I think have been used for boys at some point in the recent past, and then to verify using the SSA database. I did not verify that names like Elizabeth are not unisex, so I could have conceivably made some errors there. Also I didn't consider that parents wanting a boyish name for their daughter might name her Patricia and call her Pat...which is definitely an oversight, but I don't know what to do about it. But I did count names that had a feminine spelling but identical pronunciation to a male name (Erin, Jean).