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Unisex Names

What's in a name?

The late, great Kenny Everett, one of Britain’s greatest comedy acts once featured a sketch where two men encounter each other through a computer dating system called “meet a mate”. They bear the names Lesley Phillips and Hillary Mason – both men meet each other and realise that they have everything in common except getting the sexes right. Actually the sketch was a bit more subtle. Unisex or Epicene names is a topic covered in Wikipedia. Kenny Everett’s sketch depended on gender ambiguity. I’d like to talk about male, female and unisex names in the English language, their distinguishing factors and importance.

In some cultures such as the Russian one, unisex names are a rarity in comparison to English. The Russian language like French or for that matter German is inflected according to gender. “I am from England” could be “Ya Anglichanin” or “Ya Anglichanka” depending on whether you are a man or woman respectively in Russian. Russian names are typically identifiably male or female. Women’s names end with open vowel syllables such as li, ka, ya, ana generally empasising the A or Ee (Y) sound. In this respect Russian is allied to Indian and Persian languages where nouns ending in lengthened vowels typically identify the female of a species.

In English, women’s names tend to be more open ended: Anna, Lisa, Wendy than men’s names, but there are exceptions. Typically, the English language has a wider source of names than many other languages including names from classical Rome and Greece (Helena, Justin, Venus, Katherine), names of Hebrew or Biblical origin (Mary, Jacob, Ruth, David), form a mainstay, especially for men’s names. There are also names of European origin in English such as the Germanic Richard, which means strong or emphasises that aspect. Women’s names in particular also derive from the names of flowers (Lilly, Rose), gems (Ruby), fruit (Apple, Peaches) with a larger variation and prolixity of origin than for men, take the name Cleo after Cleopatra of Egypt.

Several English women’s names along with the rest of Europe represent feminsed version of typical male names: Louis/Louisa, Robert/Roberta, Nicholas/Nicola, Jude/Judy, Victor/Victoria, Patrick/Patricia. Many female names represent simplified forms of longer, more traditional names: Katherina to Katherine, Helena to Helen, Nicola to Niki, Joanna to Joanne or Jo. There are some names where men and women’s names sound similar except for the spelling: Antony/Antonia has turned into the modern Tony/Toni for men and women respectively; similary (sometimes with subtle differences in pronunciation) Justin/Justine, Terry/Terri, Randy/Randi, Vivien/Vivienne. Sometimes, the names are identical and gender unspecific, that’s when they become epicenes or unisex.

Authors such as the Bronte sisters submitted their novels with men’s names at a time that women were not expected to be top authors. In the modern world there is no handicap in being a recognised female writer except perhaps in a fundamentalist religious culture where the status of women is seen as overtly submissive. Indeed, as a writer I would happily disguise my gender for all sorts of reasons and here the epicene name could be quite handy. Names like Kerry, Lesley, Hillary, Meredith, Pat, Jude, Aubrey and Hester come to mind. Several recognised authors have opted for these somewhat ambiguous names – it just helps the writing to stand out irrespective of sex. Last but not least in this selection comes Lee. It’s largely male and has a feminine form Leigh, but is used as a unisex name that’s versatile in front (Lee de Forest) as a middle name (Jamie Lee Curtis) or at the end. It’s also used in double barrel forms - Kathy-Lee. It sort of means a clearing by a wood or pasture and also relates to Leah.

May I be so bold as to suggest that a woman’s first name can have more of a bearing on her fate than a male name? This is indicated in the bigger diversity of female names available and their extreme novelty, in the case of names of recent celebrity offspring such as Apple or Peaches. A woman’s name could be the difference between a name to fall in love with vs a name to steer clear of. Just as much as women’s fashion is more diverse than male, a female name will really help her stand out from the crowd, something men need to do less of.

Most men in the UK will typically fall into about ten typical male names. Say, John, Peter, David, Richard, Henry, James, Ian, Paul, Thomas, George. These names often emphasise masculinity, strength, kingship or simply status or origin. George for example is an English name with kingly associations (there are six king George’s in recent UK history). Given that a man’s surname is often more important than his first and could dominate his partner’s name, the first name, like male “beauty” is not as important as the beauty that would theoretically have to underpin an equivalent woman’s name.

I once knew a Hilary who hated her name, she cursed her parents for it. Not only did it deprive her of something of her femininity, it also helped hide her somewhat. I don’t think Hilary Clinton’s name necessarily had any negative impact in this context however – she already stood out from the crowd at the outset, she was Clinton remember? I once received an email from a girl called Justine, and in the haste I was in, I simply assumed it was from a male friend of mine called Justin. At that time this name obviously did not help her to stand out.

Women’s names may have to be chosen more carefully and shine in originality. How about the paraphrased line in a novel “I rather thought you were a Daphne rather than a Jane” indicating that Daphne sounds more enchanting, beautiful or feminine than plain Jane. If a man visits a prostitute by contrast and she asks for his name, they may settle very easily on JOHN. Her name on the other hand could be of more interest. You can revel in women’s names. They evoke the ladies one may have met and qualities that shone out from them, eyes, hair, laughter, virtue as well as enchantment, delight and Joy. They link up with pleasant associations like summer, fruits, flowers or celebrated actresses and princesses.

Twenty five names that roll off the mind: Lucy, Luanda, Louise, Joy, Clarissa, Candida, Cora, Leah, Leonora, Jody, Anna, Echo, Venus, Rose, Linda, Lindsey, Simone, Shirley, Shakira, Mabel, April, Daisy, Karina, Arabella; these names to me are unambiguously and unashamedly feminine. There are hundreds more: Daphne, Claire, Sarah …. And plenty more to choose from, why not names from India or Greek mythology like Sita, Aphrodite, Athena, Usha? Less common within the Anglo-Saxon framework.

Names are important even if they don’t really reveal anything of an underlying personality. Personalities and archetypes get associated with names. Several old fashioned names simply represent verbs and adjectives, as widely applied in Africa: Prince, Charity, Chastity, Constance, Fidelity. Names are fickle. Men’s names will be more conservative, women’s names are generally liberal. Perhaps the choice of a woman’s first name will be more important to her whole life rather than for a man; just as much as she will alter her hair colour to suite her perceptions if she had that option; whereas the man has the option of not having any hair at all and not just to make a fashion statement. Again, it has to be emphasised that ultimately a name will probably not be that important unless that is you write or act and have to stand out like a brand, but I still maintain that women’s names will remain more diverse and fascinating for many a reason, at least as a first impression.

Trends in unisex names

The recent book Freakonomics has a good analysis of baby names towards the end.  Here’s trends with unisex names.

The recent book Freakonomics has a good analysis of baby names towards the end. Here’s trends with unisex names.

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