Why feminine people can have masculine names, but not vice versa

February 13, 2019 in inQueery

Image Source: Andrew Hudson’s Jobs List (andrewhudsonsjobslist.com)


To be completely honest, baby names is not a subject I think of everyday, but a little bit ago I read an article on The Atlantic that brought up some interesting points on the subject of gender and names.

The article in question, written by Atlantic staff writer Joe Pinsker starts with a question: why are we giving more and more girls surnames that are traditionally thought of as male?  

Pinsker is not the only one to have noticed the trend, parenting blogs have chimed in on it as well.

He is quick to note though that this is not a new phenomenon: some names that are perceived as female now, like Shirley or Ashley originated as boys’ names. (My own name, Anne, used to be gender neutral. Just ask – or don’t, he’s dead- famous historical figure Anne, duke of Montmorency.)

Nor is it an overwhelming trend: to give you an idea, in 2017, 170 baby girls were named Noah for 18,326 baby boys. Furthermore: the top 10 girls’ names for that year is still overwhelmingly feminine sounding with Emma, Olivia and Ava leading the pack.

What’s interesting is this: for some reason, this trend does not work the other way: boys are very rarely given girls’ names. My own “girl names for boys” internet search mostly brought up two types of articles: the first listed gender neutral names and the second listed… boys’ names for girls. 

Actress Gene Tierney was named after a beloved uncle and became famous under her masculine sounding name despite having a female middle name. Image Source: Wikipedia

To solve this mystery, Pinsker quotes sociologist Brian Powell who explains that it is commonly accepted for a girl to have some traits that are generally perceived as more masculine like athleticism or ambition. However, supposedly feminine traits are still considered to be unsuitable for boys.

Powell explains that it is common for social groups with a “higher perceived status” (here: males) to want to avoid picking up any qualities associated with groups considered to be inferior (here: females) and cites the “one-drop rule” -a 17th century rule according to which someone with even one drop of black blood shall be considered black- as an example of this tendency to “avoid taking on any traits of the lower-status group”.

What this brought to mind for me is the way culture portrays “tomboys” v.s. effeminate little boys. The former are quirky and likeable, while the latter are a source of concern for their family.

To reinforce his point, Pinsko mentions an anecdote from a writer who got an angry call from a mother after she listed “Riley” as a girl’s name. The woman was frustrated about this categorizing because Riley was the name she had given her son and she didn’t want it to be perceived as female.

Parents of little boys have a tendency to just not want to see anything feminine in them because there is such a strong stigma against males who are not fully masculine.

What this seems to point to is the superior value that our society seems to still be giving all things male over all things female. Not only is it more acceptable for some female subjects to entertain some male characteristics than for male subjects to do the same with female ones, but even when it comes to neutrality, the masculine seems to still be dominating somehow.


When I told Katherine, this blog’s coordinator, about my idea for this article she remarked that names that sound more masculine are very popular with non-binary people. Maybe because the baggage male names carry in terms of gender is not as heavy as the one carried by female monikers?  This would not be surprising in a world where everything female is so readily sexualized, while “man” is still considered to be a synonym of “human.”



Anne Errelis is a Staff Contributor at InQueery.