Gender-neutral names are on the rise for babies – but the popularity of unisex first names is about far more than fashion.
Nearly 70,000 babies were given gender-neutral names in 2015. This is an increase of 60% over the preceding decade and an 88% rise since 1985. Today, gender-specific names may dominate the ‘Top Ten Names’ lists, but gender-neutral names are more broadly represented overall. In 2018, the traditionally boys’ name Harper pushed Abigail out of the top 10 girls’ names for the first time in 17 years.
Some of today’s young parents don’t want their children to conform to expectations of the old “boys climb trees and girls play with dolls” variety, so they choose to give their children a genderless name that comes free of any stereotypical baggage. Also, a gender-neutral name can benefit a person later in life by helping to offset some of the conscious and unconscious bias that still exists in the academic and business worlds.
Family identity comes into it too. The erosion of traditional expectations means 21st Century parents often choose names that have greater personal meaning. They may not be a traditional name at all – neither for girls or boys. Think of celebrity kids like Brooklyn Beckham, Journey River Green and Delta Bell Shepard.
But how might location affect name choice? To find out, we analyzed Social Security Administration data going back to 1910 to identify the changing trends in unisex names in the US. We then created an animated map visualizing the top gender-neutral names in every state.
A map of gender-neutral names in every state
The map below shows the most popular unisex name in each state over the past 100+ years. Blank spaces indicate that there was no data available for that state in that year. For the purposes of our study, we determined a gender-neutral name to be one given to at least 20% and at most 80% of each sex.
The winners? Casey, Riley and Jessie were the most common gender-neutral names in most states in most years since 1910. Casey was the most popular name on 414 occasions.
How gender perception affected our sketch artists
Having identified the most popular unisex names in America, we wondered how people imagine these names to look. We asked a female and a male sketch artist to draw their idea of what a Casey, a Riley and a Jessie might look like. Below, you can see how the artists drew each name side-by-side.
The most popular unisex name first became popular for girls in the 1960s. It can be an abbreviation of the Irish surname Cathasaigh, Cassandra or Acacia (like the tree). Other parents were inspired by Jonathan Luther “Casey” Jones, a legendary railroader born in Cayce, Kentucky, who was known as a rule-breaker and a hero. Hence, the name is often thought to mean ‘brave.’
One of our portraitists, Jon Allen, admits he was influenced by knowing two boys named Casey while growing up. “I tried to portray a fun, outgoing young male in this Casey portrait,” says Jon. The other, Natalie Grigson, knows a (male) Casey but instinctively drew an androgynous child. “Something about the name Casey just sounds very little kid-ish to me. It reminds me of baseball and playgrounds and collecting bugs,” she says.
Riley may derive from the Irish surname Reilly, which derived from the historical royal Ó Raghallaigh family and meaning “valiant or prosperous”. Another source is the old English ‘ryge leah,’ meaning “wood clearing.” Although it has been the top unisex name of an American state 368 times, it has generally been favored for girls over the past couple of decades. It is a common choice for a middle name, too. Courtney Cox, Vin Diesel and Tony Hawk all have boys or girls with the middle name Riley.
“I knew a Riley in my early twenties,” says artist Natalie. “The Riley I knew was something of a party girl, and I envisioned this Riley being similar in that way.” Jon has never known a Riley but was inspired to portray her as a strong female: “I wanted to make my portrait of Riley someone in their mid-30s that has their life together,” he says.
Jessie may be an abbreviation of Jessica or – following Scottish tradition – Janet or Jean. However, it is just as commonly used for boys (often without the ‘i’). Parents may have the Wild West outlaw Jesse James or the activist Jesse Jackson in mind.
That optional ‘i’ made all the difference for our portraitists. “I think if it was spelled Jesse, it would have been a totally different outcome for me,” says Jon. “The Jessie I know best is an ex-boyfriend of mine but spelled ‘Jesse,’” says Natalie. “I picture a woman named Jessie to be natural, confident, cool, pretty relaxed; maybe a bit of a tomboy.”
Choosing a name for your child is a creative act that will influence their life in ways it is impossible to predict. But looking for a unisex name is a good way to avoid creating unintentional preconceptions for your young human.
Avoiding traditional boy and girl names opens up a whole new world of options and gives your kid a unique start as they begin to develop their sense of identity. Which gender-neutral names do you like?
We began by gathering data from the Social Security Administration (SSA) on registered birth names. We searched for all instances of names that were given to both males and females in a given year for each state (and the District of Columbia). We then calculated by what percentage the names skewed male or female. Finally, we selected the most balanced gender-neutral name per year by state. All gender-neutral names are 20% to 80% male or female. A “No data” determination means there was no data available from SSA. This means there were no instances of a gender-neutral name, or all instances of gender-neutral names fell outside of our parameters.
All data acquired from the Social Security Administration ssa.gov