Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why do Israelis love unisex names?

The trend of Israelis giving their children cross-gender/unisex names has been going on now for some years. I was still interested, however, to see that the list of the most popular baby names for 2008 was divided into girls' names, boys' names and unisex names; and that the most popular name of all, Noam, was given to some 2,000 boys and 500 girls.

I asked Dr Miri Rozmarin of Tel Aviv University's Gender Studies Programme and Philosophy Dept about the meaning of the trend.

She pointed out that almost every one of the most popular cross-gender names - Noam, Amit, Ariel, Daniel and Adi - moved from being a boys' name to being a boys' and a girls' name. (Adi was first a girl's name.)

"Israel is a society where there are very prominent differences between the genders and where manliness is idealised. If you notice, this list is all of boys' names which turned into girls' names, and not the other way round. Girls taking on a boy's name is part of the attempt of girls to gain equality. It's a very patriarchal society, and they are almost masquerading as boys through the name."

Girls' names which became boys' names - such as Adi, Neta and Ma'ayan - are gramatically masculine, she says.

"It might have been an initial way for parents to take something from the men to the women. Now the boys are taking them back. But mostly the name exchanges go in one direction - from boys to girls. The other direction is very peripheral."

Interestingly, she does not see the trend for unisex names as radical or particularly subversive - she notes that although the gender might be changing, these parents are sticking to classic or, in Israeli terms, relatively 'established' names.

She also said that in secular society, there is now a trend for parents to give their children very traditional names such as Ariel, David or Yonah - names which have been almost unheard of in recent years.

"This is an attempt to re-establish the difference between men and women's names.... In the previous generation they wouldn't call a baby after its grandfather."

Actually, Yonah is both a man's name and a girls' name. I also think that the return to really classic names might say something about increasing self-confidence in Israeli society - there is less of a need to run away from 'shtetl' or biblical names, less of a need to make everything 'new' and 'different'.

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