The History of a Name

I’ve written before about name sex-changes — the process by which male names become female. What happens is that parents of girls begin to adopt a male name, attracted to the strength or intelligence it conveys. For a short time, the name is androgynous, but then, at a certain tipping point, parents of boys cede the name entirely. God forbid Daddy’s Little Boy be mistaken for a girl, right?

A graphing tool called the Baby Name Voyager shows us exactly how this process takes place. Check out the stats on my own name. Blue is for boys, and magenta is for girls, obviously. The gender on top in the graph is actually the one for whom the name is less common.


Sure enough, "Dana" reached its apogee during the 1980s, the decade of my own birth, when it was among the top 100 names for girls. And as you can see, the name was male-dominated until the 1940s, when it flipped.  Dana Carvey‘s parents were behind the times when they chose the name for the future comedian in 1955.

You can do a lot of cool things with the Baby Name Voyager such as comparing the number of Bens to Benjamins, for example, or seeing the most common names that begin with any letter. Check it out.

(And thanks to Mark for showing me the site!)

4 thoughts on “The History of a Name

  1. Peter

    Michael – one of the top boys’ names – went through a brief “girl” phase in the 1970′s and 1980′s, before reverting to its male-(almost)only status. I sort of recalled that, and a look at the Baby Name Voyager confirmed my recollection. It wouldn’t be surprising if many of the female Michaels, today in their twenties and thirties, now go by Michelle.

    As for Dana Carvey, though he grew up in California he actually was born in Montana. It is possible that the boys –> girls gender switch which affected names like Dana first occurred in larger urban areas and only gradually spread to the hinterlands. His parents, therefore, may not really have been behind the times when they chose the name in 1955.

  2. Mike Levy

    My daughter Allison was born in August, so I naturally checked that. Interestingly it was a male name up until the thirties, and then female from the forties on. However there was never really an overlap — no decade has it in the top 1000 for both boys and girls.

  3. janet

    Baby Name Voyager is one of the greatest time sinks I’ve ever encountered. I found it while I was pregnant, and quickly progressed from looking up possible baby names to doing things like looking up all the jewel names I could think of, or movie stars’ names to see if they correlated with the star’s popularity. But it’s really invaluable if you want to avoid giving your baby a name you think is original, only to find out it’s a current favorite.


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