Figure 1.--

Gender and Names

A child's first name generally connotes the child's gender. Boys are usually given masculine first names and girls feminine first names. There are important exceptions, however, which may complicate attempts to determine the gender of Victorian children shown in old photographs. As these pictures often reveal, dresses and long hair were popular for both boys and girls in that era, but without names attached to the photographs, it can be hard distinguish boys from girls. There are also masuline and femine versions of the same name such as Albert/Alberta, Alexander/Alexandra, Anhonia/Antonia, Chriostopher/Christina, Frederick/Fredericka, Robert/Roberta, William/Woillhemina, and many others . In addition some names are gender neutaral such as Carol, Frances, Julian, Marian, and Vivian, although perceptions vary and are sometimes seen as girls' names. Sometimes the conventions vary among coutries. Carmen in America is seen as a girls' name, but in Italy it is a boys' name. Spelling diferences are also a factor. Dennis is a boys' name while Denis or Denise is a girls' name.

Old Photographs

The uncertainty about whether a Victorian child is a boy or a girl is greatly reduced when a name is attached to the photograph. As boys name generally indicates that the child is a boy, and a girls name a girl. There are, however, several problems here. And a names generally assocuated as a boys or girls' first name can not always be taken as proof positive that a child is aboy or girl--although it is certainly strong evidence of this. Some boys were given feminine names during the Victorian era, and so a child could be a boy even if he has a girls' name and wears long curls and a dress. Other complications include names that were gebder neutral as well as names that have gone out of fashion so the gender connotations are lost to the modern reader.

Boy/Girl Names

The practice of giving girls names to boys continues to this day, although the frequency with which boys have been given girls names presumably has decreased in the past century. By contrast, girls were rarely been given boys names in the past, although in the last several decades it has been much more common for girls to be given boys names. Styles for first names change, just as styles for hairdos and clothing.

Naming Baby

Many interesting first names are contained in a recent book that lists the first names given to boys and girls born in 1995 (and in part for 1994). The book, whose fifth edition was published in 2001, is by Janet Schwegel and entitled The Baby Name Countdown. It contains an astounding 124,000 names, of which substantially more than half have been given to girls. The names were obtained from the registrars of vital statistics for a number of states in the United States as well as provinces in Canada, plus the U.S. Social Security Administration. The registration for each newborn child contains, among other things, the child's first name and the child's sex. Many of the first names in the book are exceedingly rare and unusual, whereas others are common. The frequencies with which the names have been given are listed when they reach a threshold level, but if a number is not given, the name is relatively rare.

Changing Usage

One of the revealing aspects is that most traditional boys' names are also now being given to girls, although many of the names are given infrequently used. Nevertheless, such names as Michael, John, Peter, Harold, William, Ronald, Daniel, Richard, and Robert, plus virtually all other common boys' names, are now given to girls, even though this would have been unheard of in Victorian times. Giving boys names to girls seems to be quite accepted today by many girls, some of which also like boyish haircuts and clothes.

Girls' Names

Ghere is a long list of girls' names. Most of these names are documented in Schwegel's book, and the rest are from other sources. These are names widely used today by girls and women have been given to boys in recent decades. Occassionally some of tyhese names are given to boys. The proportion of boys that receive hese names, however, is very small. It is much more common for girls to receive boys' names. The ones that boys most commonly receive are those that are seen by some as gender neutral such as Ashley. The names include: Aigail, Ada, Adelaide, Adele, Alberta, Alexandra, Alice, Alicia, Alisha, Alma, Amber, Amy, Angela, Angelina, Anita, Anna, Anne, Annette, Antonia, April, Ardis, Ashley, Audrey, Autumn, Babette, Beatrice, Bernadette, Betty, Beverly, Bonnie, Brenda, Bridget, Brittany, Carolina, Carolyn, Cassandra, Catherine, Celeste, Celestine, Charity, Charlotte, Chelsea, Chloe, Christianna, Christina, Clara, Clarissa, Cora, Cornelia, Crystal, Cynthia, Daisy, Darling, Darnelle, Dawn, Deanna, Deborah, Denise, Diana, Dora, Edie, Eileen, Eleanor, Elise, Eliza, Elizabeth, Ella, Eloise, Emily, Emma, Erica, Esther, Eva, Eve, Evelyn, Faith, Frances, Francesca, Gabriella, Gale, Genevieve, Georgeanne, Georgia, Gloria, Hazel, Heather, Helen, Hilda, Holly, Hope, Inez, Ingemar, Irene, Iris, Isabel, Isabella, Ivy, Jacquelyn, Jane, Janelle, Janessa, Janet, Janine, Jeanette, Jennifer, Jenny, Jessica, Jewel, Jill, Jillian, Joan, Joanna, Joanne, Jocelyn, Jolene, Josephine, Joy, Judy, Julia, Julianna, Julianne, Julie, Julienne, Juliet, June, Justine, Karen, Kate, Katerina, Katherine, Kathy, Katie, Kimberly, Kirsten, Kristin, Kristina, Laura, Lauren, Leeanne, Letty, Lily, Linda, Lisa, Lisette, Lizette, Louise, Love, Lucile, Luisa, Lydia, Mardell, Margaret, Maria, Marian, Marianne, Mariam, Marie, Marietta, Marilyn, Marion, Marissa, Martha, Mary, Maryanna, Maxine, May, Maya, Megan, Melanie, Melissa, Michelle, Miranda, Miriam, Molly, Monica, Myra, Nadine, Nadja, Nan, Nancy, Nanette, Natalie, Natasha, Nell, Nella, Nicole, Nina, Ninette, Nora, Octavia, Olivia, Opal, Patricia, Pearl, Polly, Princess, Rachel, Rebecca, Rhonda, Roberta, Rosa, Rosamond, Rose, Ruby, Ruth, Ruthanne, Sally, Salome, Samantha, Sarah, Sasha, Shannelle, Sharon, Sherry, Shirley, Sonya, Sophia, Sophie, Stacy, Stella, Stephanie, Susan, Susana, Suzanne, Suzette, Tabatha, Tammy, Tessie, Theresa, Tiffany, Tina, Topaz, Valerie, Vanessa, Vera, Vickie, Victoria, Vivianna, Vivien, Willa, Winifred, Yvonne, and Zoe.

Cultural Differences

A major confusion in America results from large scale immigration. Most of our gender conventions come from England. Yet a majority of Ameican trace their ancestors from non-English immigrants. These gender conventions in many countries are quite different from England. This is especially true of Italian-Americans. Thus names such as Carmen, seen by most Americans as a girls' name is a widely used boys' name. The Mexican and other Hispanics are an important part of the U.S. population. Gender and naming conventions in Spanish are also very different than in English. Is is much more common among Hispamics to use feminine names, often as a middle name, such as Josť Maria.


What is the effect on the boys who have been given these names. Many boys must have really disliked them. Keep in mind that the proportion of boys given these names is relatively small, but that may be scant comfort for a boy whose name is regarded as girlish such as Emily or Maryanna or Natalie.


Many boys with a name seen as girlish may escape the embarrassment by using a more acceptable middle name which was often, but not always available. Finally, he may adapt a nickname from his first name to make it less girlish, or choose a nickname unrelated to his first name or middle name, although he may be thwarted if his parents on formal and insist on calling him by his given name. Some of the names listed above can be readily adapted to nicknames that are less girlish. The suffix "a" can be dropped from Alberta, Erica, Linda, and Roberta to create Albert, Eric, Lind, and Robert. Abigail can become Abbie, Alma can be changed to Al, Carol to Carl, Deborah to Deb, Denise to Denis, Emily and Emma to Em, Georgia to George, Janet to Jan, Jessica to Jess, Joanna, Joanne, and Josephine to Jo, Julia, Julianna, Julie, and Juliet to Julian, Louise to Louis, Maria, Marian, Marianne, Mary, and Maryanna to Mario, Nancy and Nannette to Nan, Patricia to Pat, Stephanie to Stephan, Victoria to Victor, and so forth. On the other hand, it seems difficult to satisfactorily adapt names such as Anne, Anna, Catherine, Diana, Gloria, Kate, Nell, Rose, Ruth, Sally, Samantha, Susan, Suzanne, and Theresa.

Relative Popularity

Keep in mind that there have been large changes in the relative popularity of first names, particularly in the past half century. These changes have been taking place for centuries, however. Consider the names Julian, Marian, and Vivian. Julian is still regularly used as a boys name, but its variants that include Julia, Julianne, Julianna, Julia Anne, and Juliet are now regarded almost solely as feminine names. Marian and variant Marion were regularly accepted as masculine names a century ago, but are also now largely considered to be feminine names. Other variants that include Marianne, Marianna, Maryanne, and Mary Anne are almost totally feminine names. Finally, Vivian, was seen as a boys' name. The variants Vivien and Vivienne, were regularly used as boys names a century ago, but are now more or less considered to be girls names. Other variants of Vivian such as Vivianne, Vivianna, and Vivian Anne are now even more feminine.


There are several reasons why parents give girls names to their sons. One is that children are often named after their ancestors, so a boy might be named in honor of a grandmother or great-grandmother or great-aunt. Another is that parents who want to have a girl may select a girls' name before the child is born, and for sentimental reasons hold on to that name even though the baby proves to be a boy. And of course, some parents may simply like a particular girls' name and use it whether the child is a boy or girl. Often a mother will select her own first name for a girl, and presumably sometimes for a boy.


We usually don't know what the reasons are for selecting a specific first name, but there is a well-known example of a boy whose mother expected a girl and had chosen a girls' name before he was born and kept the name afterwards. The boy is Vivian Burnett, whose mother, Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote the book and play entitled "Little Lord Fauntleroy." Vivian was the prototype for Cedric Errol, the hero of the story who was endowed with the title Little Lord Fauntleroy. Fauntleroy's lace and velvet costumes and long curls had enormous influence on boys' styles for generations. Vivian was her second child, Vivian's brother Lionel having been born 2 years earlier. Mrs. Burnett was so convinced that her second child would be a girl that she insisted on using Vivien as a girls name for the child. She was immensely disappointed when a boy arrived instead, but decided to keep the name except for modifying the spelling to Vivian. Conscious of Vivian's name, his mother honored him indirectly in the book Little Lord Fauntleroy by naming one of the minor characters in the book after him. She chose the first name Vivian for "Miss Vivian Herbert, the great beauty of the last London season." Mrs. Burnett must have liked the name, but it is ironic that she had earlier changed Vivian's name from Vivien, which she considered to be a feminine name, whereas later she used the name Vivian as the first name for Miss Herbert. In retrospect, both Vivien and Vivian seemed to have been acceptable at that time for either girls or boys.

Reader Comments

A reader writes, "I just read the HBC page on gender, including the "name conventions", which analyzes the practice of giving "girls'" names to boys, and vice versa. Being a boy named Brandy, I guess I'm qualified to speak on the subject. The general tone of the page on names seemed to be that boys with names that people generally consider girls' names, don't like their names much, or go to whatever lengths to make them sound more masculine. This seemed to include using middle names, nicknames, or whatever. Anyway, personally, as a Brandy, I rather like my name. I have had numerous occasions where someone's automatic assumption was that I was a girl, however, once realizing that I'm a boy, I've never had anyone say it's a stupid name for a boy or anything like that. And, actually, I've received a lot of compliments on it. Now, that's something to consider. If my name were David, for example, I doubt anyone would ever compliment my name or even notice it, for that matter. The reason being, that it's common to the point of being boring. However, Brandy isn't overly common and, although not unheard of for a boy's name, it's certainly uncommon. As a result, it's a name that people notice, remember and, more often than not, like. Or, at least I'm told quite often by people that they like it.

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Created: August 8, 2002
Last updated: 4:42 PM 10/27/2004