Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Should we blame it on Title IX? A few years ago, I began to notice among my breeding friends and acquaintances a taste for giving girls boy names: Morgan, Cameron, Dylan. Judging from the recent annual lists of the most popular first names, you’ve probably noticed the same. Look no further than celebrities, those bellwethers of questionable taste, and you’ll find Sting’s little girl, Eliot, and Diane Keaton’s bundle of sugar and spice, Dexter. Maybe a woman can’t be more like a man, but she can sound like one.

Watch out, Andrew and Christopher. Your time may be up, Neil and Keith. Boys names are fair game for the fairer sex. Recent history tells us that cross-dressing names migrate in one direction—from boys to girls—and that once a name crosses the line it doesn’t go back. A so-called androgynous name is generally a girl’s name in the making. Long ago Leslie crossed into girl territory; in 1998, it was the 84th most popular girl’s name. Dylan, presently holding on to a male edge, is sure to follow.

In schoolyards across the nation, permanent damage is already being inflicted on the budding male psyches of defenseless Blakes, Taylors and Jodys. In the baby-naming guide Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana, authors Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran include a must-avoid list for parents who want to spare their sons a lifetime of trauma—and it is expanding.

It’s not like the little guys have names to spare. Even before the young ladies hijacked Bradley and Glenn, there were fewer boys names than girls, the legacy of centuries in which male juniors and “the thirds” carried the burden of family tradition. Girls’ names were more like fanciful baubles for the decorative sex. This helps explain why the boys have Charles, while the girls can choose from Carol, Caroline, Charlotte and Charlene.

This male impersonation act is not unprecedented. Rosenkrantz claims that in “Olde England”—whenever that’s supposed to be—girls were commonly given names like Douglas, Edmund and Simon. Yet somehow those names survived as identifiably male. Until now.

It is tempting to characterize this “girl named boy” phenomenon as a feminist expression by parents who want to send their little girl into the world with a name that connotes power and strength. But don’t count on it.

That kind of reasoning also suggests that the 20-year preference for biblical names such as Sarah and Noah reflects the great awakening of the late 20th century. Not so, according to Stanley Lieberson’s new Study of Naming Fashions.

Based on rates of religious observance and parental self-description, the secular are more likely to pluck a name from the Good Book than the religious. Feminism is one of those obvious social explanations for a naming fashion which, Lieberson repeatedly shows, does not stand up to scrutiny.

Based on the data, it’s more likely that parents are driven by a quest for novelty. Eliot is a girl’s name for parents who “think different” and these days, who doesn’t? The records show that thinking differently has shrunk the life cycle of popular names to five.

Meanwhile, the top 20 names make up a dramatically smaller portion of total names than they did 40 years ago.

A parent looking for a unique name for a daughter can make one up, as African Americans do. Or they can appropriate one from the boys. George is as much a bauble as Alicia, one perfectly attuned to contemporary taste. It’s edgy. It’s cool. And it’s sexy in the way that the famous victory strip of World Cup soccer champ Brandi Chastain is sexy.

Still, girls with boys’ names provide an interesting metaphor for the shifting turf between the sexes. In the same third-grade classes where boy and girl Morgans sit side by side, boys are finding themselves academically surpassed by girls.

Ophelia is being revived as Orlando, while the guys fill out the bottom ranks of the SATs. Girls now routinely make up the majority on school honor rolls, and they receive 55 per cent of the B.A. and M.A. degrees awarded.

Girl virtues like teamwork and cooperation are valorized while (male) aggression and competitiveness are redefined as deviant.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t consider a girl named Bruce child abuse; a boy named Abigail surely would be. In millennial America, androgyny is not about the blurring of the genders; it’s about girls winning.