The Grammarphobia Blog

And don’t call me Shirley

Q: I’ve noticed a trend to give girls traditionally male names. As a result, some of these names are no longer thought of as male. Do you know of any traditionally female names that have transitioned the other way? Can you offer any insight?

A: We don’t know how much insight we can offer, but it certainly does seem to be the case that a lot of parents are giving traditional male names to female children.

Although we may be seeing more of this now, it isn’t a new phenomenon.

Pat’s mother, born in 1929, was named Beverly, and one of her aunts was named Sydney. Both had traditionally been boys’ names.

Other traditionally male names that were adopted as feminine during the early to mid-20th century include Shirley, Evelyn, Meredith, Leslie, Ashley, Lindsay, and Kim.

(Remember Leslie Nielsen’s line in the movie Airplane? “I am serious … and don’t call me Shirley.”)

In the last few decades we’ve either met or read about women – real women, not fictional characters – named Christopher, Sean, Elliot, Drew, Michael, Glenn, Jordan, Morgan, Lionel, Madison, and Howard (Anne Rice’s original name).

We’re not counting feminized versions of male names, like Michaela, Morgana, Raye, and Jamie. Nor are we counting boyish-sounding names that are actually short for feminine ones, like Sam (short for Samantha), Alex (for Alexandra), Fred (for Fredericka), or Stevie (for Stephanie).

It’s pretty obvious why this doesn’t work the other way around, with little boys being given girls’ names. As a culture, we generally discourage “girlishness” in little boys, but  think tomboyishness is cute in little girls. 

And these days, with people going out of their way to find unusual names for babies, it seems inevitable that parents of girls would give them boys’ names in an attempt to be trendy. Well, trends come and go. 

In Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, the tomboyish character Jo March is really Josephine but hates her name.

And the boy next door is Theodore Laurence, but he doesn’t like Theodore because “the fellows called me Dora.”

So instead, he calls himself “Laurie,” which was a common 19th-century boys’ nickname for Laurence. He would never have chosen that name today.

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