The Vagenda

How To Name Your Daughter

It’s been a good few years since Johnny Cash told us that it’s difficult to be a boy called Sue (yea, yea, I know Shel Silverstein did it first – but sshh, listen!) and we’ve had a fair amount of time to lament his fate. You may remember that the Sue in question was so perturbed about his moniker – even more so than his father’s abandonment of his son at three years old – that he hunts down his daddy and attempts to kill him, before a tearful explanation and reunion. Reunion notwithstanding, the point remains: waltzing around with such a girlie name has given Sue a tough time throughout the years, and though the ridicule is exaggerated for artistic effect, we can imagine similar dilemmas in this age.

When we sit down to name our children (never done it, but I imagine it’s an activity that shouldn’t be done standing, lest it possibly lead to blows), we hardly ever take into account the social ramifications. Much is made of checking that the initials don’t spell out SEX or FUK or something similar, or running through every possible nickname scenario (remember: a Francesca who is raised in Germany WILL get called Fanny.) But it might be worth examining how much social clout a Daisy actually has in comparison to her male counterpart called Daniel. Or whether Fifi Trixibelle – the least fame-hungry Geldof sister – might have been taken more seriously with a name like Katherine or Lauren.

As the semi-proud owner of a silly flower name, I come at this as objectively as I can. Your name is a word that you will hear on a daily basis, for the rest of your life (unless you choose the change it – but you have to have one, either way.) People’s names fly about readily in every context. The first thing you ask a person on meeting them is their name, and now that friending someone on Facebook prevails over swapping phone numbers during a night out, it’s even more important to remember them. Considering these rather obvious facts, it’s actually astounding that we regularly examine the language used to describe women in the media, but we allow popular names lists pass us by that are dominated by names like Lily, Ruby, Crystal and Jessalisalovelibella on one side, and Hunter, Mason, Strider and Steel on the other?

What sort of a world does a Pixie grow up into, as opposed to a Thomas? Sure, there are silly boys’ names – but they tend to be less diminutive. Famous ruiner of children’s names, Jamie Oliver, who managed to name his three daughters Daisy Boo, Poppy Honey Rosie, and Petal Blossom Rainbow (seriously), at least had the decency to chuck a tough animal in when he named his son Buddy Bear. A bear is a little less insulting than the hyperactive neon fairyland imagery that the words petal, blossom, and rainbow give rise to. And your buddy is on a par with you, but a poppy in close proximity with a rose covered in honey is just something ridiculous, cutesy, and probably extremely confusing on a culinary level (ironic, considering the career path that I’ve heard her father treads.)

So what is to be done? Well, very little: girls’ names are still celebrated for being ‘pretty’, while little boys should have a ‘strong’ name to carry them satisfactorily into manhood. My personal feeling is that this stems from a time when men were expected to change throughout their lives – have their boyhood, then renounce it for a Proper Job and a Proper Life – whereas women were expected to remain in a false infancy anyway, transferred between houses and father figures. And although you could attempt to make a similar argument for all unusual names (although I love unusual names, and am absolutely dedicated to the idea of naming my children Magnus and Margo), please don’t mistake it for the generic ‘Willow won’t get taken as seriously in the boardroom as Olivia’ jibe. Unusual names are great, and awesome, and creative. But the trends in male and female naming choices are real, and can’t be ignored.

Reinforcing gender stereotypes doesn’t actually get anymore linguistically brazen than having a son called Archer and a daughter called Violet. It may seem like an adorable sibset, but perhaps we should be encouraging people to think twice about such a move: when your brother is named after a skilled huntsmen from the eighteenth century and you’re named after a sweet-smelling plant that grows in the garden, you might have something to say about it if you think about it hard enough. And what’s going on with all the hundreds of female names that are just modified male ones? Do we really need more Harriets and Henriettas, Josephines and Thomasinas? Do we need to have a name that a man came to first?

Whichever way you look it, name-giving is another way of subtly selling in old ideas. It may not be the first thing (or indeed the thing) that you ever think of in relation to sexism, but there’s no use in ignoring it when it regularly shouts right into our ear on the playground, in the office, and in the courts of law. So let’s hear it for the Scouts and the Morgans of this world. You go, girl-boys! If I can’t tell your sex until you walk into my office, I think your parents might have been doing something right.

19 thoughts on “How To Name Your Daughter

  1. This is why I love my mom, she chose my name not only because she liked it but because it means: “victory of the people”. She named my sister Chantel which means “rocky land”. Good strong names for her two daughters who both ended up being engineers.
    I struggle enough to be taken seriously in an all male office without having the name “Pixie”… I should really thank her…

  2. Don’t forget there’s a huge class issue here as well. The pretty flower names seem to be quite a middle class trend (hello, Jamie Oliver) while little girls from less privileged backgrounds are running around with freaking awesome names like Blaze and Elektra and Storm. But gender notwithstanding, I would submit that a middle-class Rose is still more likely to end up in a boardroom than a Strider from a housing scheme…

    And then there’s the Americanism that’s spreading over here of giving girls boys’ names – in Scotland in 2010, there were girls called Cooper, Aiden, Stevie and Campbell. Maybe better than a boy named Sue, but it must get pretty boring having to explain that yes, actually, I’m a woman, and yes, my name is Eliott, and please can you just give me a fucking hair appointment. (More on Scotland’s ridiculous names here).

  3. Bravo, my Mum! Although I must say, I get a lot of, ‘Oh, I was expecting a man’ and Dear Mr…

    Luckily the ambiguity disappears (or at least I hope it does) on meeting and you can generally make the person feel very embarrassed for making such assumptions.

  4. I cutesied up my own name when I was little… it’s weird to have a young girl called Bronwen I think, too serious. Like being called Margaret..
    I’d love to meet an adult Maisy, however,
    anyway, now I forget it’s actually my name sometimes, I will forever be Bronni, cutesy as it may be.
    I personally dislike the surname as first name americanism.. MacKenzie, Harris, Cooper etc, but they can be quite gender neutral.

  5. My mother suddenly declared last week that she thinks Agapanthus would make a great name for a little boy. I’m uncertain as to how she arrived there, but maybe I should take it more seriously, should I ever be in a position to do so!

  6. Very interesting article, had never thought about how names affect gender stereotyping! It might be interesting to know that in Ancient Roman girls would always get the feminine version of their father’s names: e.g. Julius Caesar’s daughter would be Julia, if he had another would be Julia II and so on.

  7. My mother named me Clare. It’s definitely feminine, but I don’t feel it inforces a gender stereo type. It means ‘clear & bright’, I’ve always found it to be very positive.

  8. This reminded me of an article I read an age ago that on first impressions (I think it was for jobs) men were received better with one syllable ‘masculine’ names (Tom, Dick, Joe – maybe not Dick) and women with longer multi-syllable ‘feminine’ names (Rebecca, Catherine). Being a Frances (named after my grandfather Francis) that’s commonly known as a Fran I was a bit baffled as to what I was supposed to take away from that.


    P.S Trying to find the article I found this instead ( ) Which ‘scientifically’ proves girly names make you girly.

  9. My name is Ziona. People never pronounce it right and they always delegate it to just ‘Z’ which infuriates me! Its so easy, yet because it sounds vaguely exotic people don’t take the time to say it right. Despite that however if I ever had a child I would name them something different as well. I’d like to think I wouldn’t care about gender specifics because at the end of the day its just the will of the people to not be forced to deal with uncomfortable names that don’t properly fit into their idea of gender. F those people.

  10. Just a note: in Germany a ‘Francesca’ is most likely to be called ‘Franzi’ (the z is pronounced like a sharp s as in ‘second’) as we have our ‘own’ version of this name written ‘Franziska’, which would be the female Version of ‘Franz’ (french: François, italic: Francesco, english: Francis).
    There might be some corners in deep Bavaria to use Fanny as shortform, but they are…. diffrent….

  11. I felt special as a child/teen because people needlessly fussed about my name, Cherise. I was painfully shy at times so this was sometimes scary. Even now i give up correscting people to say, my name’s nor Cher. Or Cherie. Or Cherries. Or Cherry. Cerise. or Serise.” Cherries is even a nick name now. My parents named me and my sisters and brother funky, foreign names. Polish, french and italian first and middle names.

    My parents were born two weeks apart in 1953. This was the year of the queen’s coronation. My mum was named Elizabeth. My dad was named Philip. Many kids were given these names in that year. But that doesn’t mean they’re not fantastic- they’ve done so much, they’re people to be proud of and they stand out fromt the crowd.

  12. I enjoy being a Cate, short for Catherine. I just thought it’d be more logical as my full name is spelt with a C, why shouldn’t the shortened version? But I don’t know if it makes it more girlie, I’ve never thought about it. When I think of a “Kate with a C”, I think of Cate Blanchett, and she’s pretty kick-ass.

  13. My mother let the doctor name me and I have yet to forgive her. I was named after an American first lady! This is particularly insane considering I’m Canadian, my mother is Irish and my father is a Brit. I think she was angry at my because I was a difficult birth. Sorry mum. Anyway, I changed my name. Twice. I fear naming a child…

  14. I am the proud owner of a strong female name. I do not see the solution to this issue being ‘give her a name so they can’t tell she’s a girl until it’s too late’.

    Give your daughter a name that doesn’t sound silly, where she could be in government, or a bus driver, an author, a teacher, a chemist, a manager at Tescos… if she goes into ‘show biz’ she can always change it to suit her ‘brand’.

    Poor Poppy Honey, poor Daisy Boo. If I’d had a name like that I might have had to launch my own webcam site just to make a point, no one can be that twee growing up.

    This all said, I am a secret lover of the name Thomasina, I just love how it sounds.

  15. The article’s a little confusing as it starts out saying that the writer hasn’t yet had to pick names for her children, and then claims that we don’t spend enough time considering the social ramifications.

    I don’t know where the writer hangs out, but I and all of my friends agonised for ages and ages about what to call our children. Brits in Germany all of us, we needed something that both nationalities would be able to pronounce, that wouldn’t be shortened into something rude in either language etc etc. And being educated feminist types to a man, we also know about the whole class, name, career problems.

    But yes – the Geldof girls and the Oliver girls have been hard done to with their silly names. But then, David Bowie’s son changed his name from Zowie to Duncan so it can be done.

  16. I’ve been reading The Vagenda for a while and normally love what you write. This article rendered me speechless.

    One of the underlying themes of your blog, when it comes to the media and particularly magazines, is an energetic fight against women feeling like they have to let themselves be distracted by, and then immersed in, inconsequential things. It’s fighting against that culture, that we read glossy magazines of absolutely no substance whatsoever because we’ve been told over and over, ‘you, there [insert soothing pat here], go read that, it’s got pretty pictures in it. The pages are so glossy they’re probably waterproof. So you can read it in the bath whilst you splash about being all frivolous. We, the men, will go fix things and will make sure the world keeps turning. Don’t worry your pretty little head, sweetheart.’

    So to see this article here has left me feeling a bit… confused. It’s an empty issue. It’s a distraction. ‘Here, you – look, we’re not really doing anything for feminism at present except for making people aware of how shit Grazia is, on a really regular basis, so here, here’s a really fluffy, frothy cappuccino of an issue to debate amongst yourselves whilst the adults get some work done: What to name a girl. It’s all in the name, y’know. Honest. Try calling a kid Poppy Likes Flowers and see what happens. Social carnage, that’s what. She’ll never be taken seriously, like, ever.’

    I don’t get this. We need to be saying, your kid can be a girl or a boy, and named whatever, and it can be clothed in whatever colours suits it/you (bearing in mind that historically pink was deemed a ‘strong’ colour and was worn most by boys, until someone decided it was a decidedly feminine colour – as if colours can be female) and it can go on to have whatever kind of career that suits it, and whilst engaged in that, it will receive the same pay as the person next to it doing the same work, regardless of name, height, weight, hair colour, gender, skin colour or sexuality. It will enjoy human rights. It may have a whole wealth of different tastes and a personal skill cabinet that would have any average person green with envy. It may be nothing special. But it will be. And we, as a society, will let it. Nay, will not just let it, not just sanction equality, but will be proud of it, when we finally get there.

    Or are we not doing that now? Did I miss a memo?

    • I agree, it seems a bit strange to argue that women should be free to do as they see fit without kowtowing to stereotypes, unless they name their daughter Lillypad, in which case they can’t possibly be fighting the feminist fight. And what’s wrong with Thomasina or Josephine or naming your daughter after a man? That advice straddles the line of Feminist and Female Supremacist IMO.

      A name is just a name. And usually, everyone gets flack for theirs anyway.

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