Girls called Jack and boys named Sue

It’s official: the most popular British girls’ names of 2014 were Amelia, Olivia, Isla, Emily, Ava, Poppy, Isabella, Jessica, Lily and Sophie. For boys, the top ten names were Oliver, Jack, Harry, Jacob, Charlie, Thomas, George, Oscar, James and William.

The release of the annual lists earlier this week prompted the usual rash of media articles dissecting their significance. Preoccupations included the royal baby effect (‘George’ is on the rise, will ‘Charlotte’ trend next year?), the influence of celebrities (‘Harper’, the name of Victoria and David Beckham’s daughter, has entered the top 100), and of course, no report on British baby names would be complete without a paragraph on the position occupied by ‘Muhammad’.

But one thing that did not attract comment (it never does: it’s so taken for granted that it literally goes without saying) was the sharp gender differentiation to which the two lists bear witness. Of all the social attributes personal names may communicate information about–age, class, ethnicity, gender, religious faith–gender is the one that is communicated most consistently and most reliably. There is far more overlap between Black and white children’s names, and between the names given to children of different social classes, than there is between girls’ and boys’ names. In this year’s top 100 lists there was no overlap at all.

‘Androgynous’ names, which may be given to both boys and girls, do exist (current examples include ‘Cameron’ and ‘Tyler’), but they are marginal. A study which tracked their use in the US state of Illinois between 1916 and 1995 found that they never accounted for more than about 2% of all names. One reason for this was their instability: over time they tend to lose their androgynous quality. In the early 20th century ‘Dana’, ‘Marion’, Stacy’ and ‘Tracy’ were all androgynous; but as they became more popular with the parents of daughters, they fell out of favour with the parents of sons. As a result, they have all become girls’ names. There are no examples of a name moving in the other direction, and this reflects the basic feminist insight that gender isn’t just a difference, it’s a hierarchy. As the researchers explain,

there are issues of contamination such that the advantaged have a greater incentive to avoid having their status confused with the disadvantaged. … There is more to be lost for the advantaged and more to be gained by the disadvantaged when customary markers disappear.

Which is why you’re a lot more likely to meet a girl called Jack than a boy named Sue.

Another headline finding from research on gender and English personal names is that girls’ names show more variation than boys’, and the most popular girls’ names change more rapidly. This too is an effect of the status differential. In the past, one reason for the conservatism of boys’ names was that many boys, and far fewer girls, were named after a relative: men were seen as the carriers of a family’s history, its given names as well as its surname.I don’t know if that’s as true today, but it’s still the case that girls’ names, like their clothes, are more likely than boys’ to be selected for their fashionable or decorative qualities.

The names that appear in this year’s top ten lists for girls and boys are differentiated by some of their linguistic characteristics. For starters, the male names tend to be shorter. Both lists contain five two-syllable names, but the boys’ list also includes three monosyllables, whereas the girls’ list does not include any. Three of the girls’ names have four syllables, whereas the boys max out at three.

Another difference some commentators have pointed out is that the girls’ names are more ‘vowelly’ whereas the boys names are more ‘consonanty’. In part that’s a consequence of the point just made about length. A syllable in English has to contain a vowel (or occasionally a consonant with some vowel-like qualities), which may or may not be preceded and/or followed by one or more consonants. It follows that a name containing more syllables will also contain more vowels, and it will probably also have a higher vowel-to-consonant ratio.

But there’s one form of voweliness which is strongly associated with girls’ names, and doesn’t just reflect their tendency to be longer. Many–including all this year’s top ten–end with an unstressed syllable whose final sound is either –a (in English usually pronounced with the ‘colourless’ sound known as ‘schwa’) or –ie.  By contrast, six of the top ten boys’ names end in consonants (or eight, if you speak an r-pronouncing dialect of English).

There are some less obvious differences too. A phonetician colleague of mine* pointed out that the girls’ names are heavy on l-sounds and labials (consonants made with the lips, like p, m andv), whereas the boys’ names are heavy on coronals (made with the front part of the tongue, like s, t and ch). With vowels, the girls’ names tend to contain more high and front ones (like the ee sound in ‘Amelia’, the i in ‘Isabella’ and the e in ‘Emily’ and ‘Jessica’) whereas the boys’ name vowels tend to be lower and backer (like the a in ‘Harry’/’Jack’ or the o in ‘Oliver’/’Thomas’/’Oscar’).

We might wonder if these patterns are examples of the kind of sound symbolism that produces what’s known as the ‘kiki/bouba’ effect, after an experiment where people are given two different-shaped figures, one sharp and spiky, the other round and curvy, and asked which one should be called ‘kiki’ and which ‘bouba’. (The great majority choose ‘kiki’ for the spiky one and ‘bouba’ for the curvy one.) Maybe there’s some quasi-natural association between, say, femininity and high front vowels, and masculinity and low back vowels. Or maybe what matters isn’t the actual quality of the sounds so much as the contrast—one set of sounds occurring more frequently in male names and another set in female names.

I don’t want to rule out sound symbolism entirely, but for various reasons I don’t think it’s the main thing that’s going on here. In many cases the most plausible explanation has more to do with a combination of grammar and cultural history.

Many English female names were either borrowed from or modelled on languages in which –a is a grammatically feminine ending, like Latin and its descendants Italian and Spanish (from which we get ‘Amelia’ and ‘Isabella’). Some female names are derived from male ones by the addition of a feminine suffix, and those suffixes may also end in –a (e.g. –ina, -etta and -ella). A subset of the -ie names come from French, where –ie replaced the original –a on names like ‘Julie’ (from Latin ‘Julia’) and ‘Sophie’ (from Greek ‘Sophia’).  French was a prestige language in England from the late middle ages to the 19th century, and as such was the source of many high-class and fashionable names.

Another important source was the Bible, from which we get a cluster of originally Hebrew names which end (when pronounced in English) with the same schwa sound as the Latin/Spanish/Italian ones: they include ‘Deborah’, ‘Rebecca’, ‘Hannah’ and ‘Sarah’ (and a couple of boys’ names, ‘Joshua’ and ‘Noah’).

Collectively, these various imports have led English speakers to associate the –a ending with female names, and indeed to use it in names which are not imports but English inventions. ‘Olivia’ and ‘Jessica’ are examples: they may look Latin or Italian, but both were first used by Shakespeare.

Other –ie (or sometimes –y) names result from the use of that ending to form diminutive or ‘pet’ versions of names, like ‘Debbie’ for ‘Deborah’. (It’s also used in babytalk, as in ‘doggie’ and ‘kitty’.) This diminutive –ie/y form is not confined to girls’ names: it features in several of the most currently popular boys’ names, including ‘Harry’ and ‘Charlie’ from the top ten and ‘Alfie’, ‘Archie’ and ‘Freddie’ from the top twenty. But in the past it was more commonly used for girls. It’s also more common for girls to go on using an –ie diminutive in adulthood. Boys who as children were called ‘Tommy’ or ‘Timmy’ often substitute ‘Tom’ and ‘Tim’ when they reach the stage of finding the –y version childish and perhaps (not unrelatedly) a bit girly.

The popularity of monosyllabic male nicknames (‘Will’, ‘Bob’, ‘Joe’, ‘Jim’, ‘Frank’, ‘Dave’, ‘Steve’ et al) may be an example of a crude kind of sound-symbolism: monosyllables suggest a strong, no-nonsense stance which is opposed to feminine frilliness. Some women exploit this too, rejecting ‘girly’ diminutives like ‘Katie’ and ‘Cathy’ in favour of the monosyllables ‘Kate’ and ‘Cath’.

Wherever the associations come from, research suggests that English-speakers do attribute gendered meanings to certain sound patterns (and also spelling patterns) in personal names. An ingenious study of this phenomenon was done in the 1990s, making use of the African American tradition of giving children unique names. The researchers selected 16 names which had only ever been given to one child, and asked an ethnically mixed sample of people recruited at a shopping mall to say whether they thought the child was male or female. They wanted to know whether a cross-section of Americans could deduce this from the sound and spelling of names which they had never encountered before. It turned out that most people could. Their responses showed a high level of agreement, and in 13 out of 16 cases what they agreed on were the correct answers.

Almost everyone guessed, for instance, that ‘Lamecca’ (three syllables, ends in –a, contains a liquid and a labial) was a girl, while ‘Gerais’ (two syllables, beginning and ending with a coronal) was a boy. In these cases people may have been helped by the partial resemblance of the names to familiar ones like ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Gerald’, but they also did well with more unusual inventions like ‘Olukayod’. Although its length might suggest femaleness, the back vowels and, especially, the final d-sound cued the correct, male interpretation. (Women’s names ending in –d, like ‘Gertrude’ and ‘Winifred’, have fallen out of fashion and are now much rarer than male examples like ‘David’ and ‘Todd’.)

The incorrect answers were also instructive. While most people correctly identified ‘Jorell’ as a male name, ‘Furelle’, also in fact a boy’s name, was consistently misidentified as female—presumably because of the spelling ‘elle’, which is familiar from French feminine forms like ‘Danielle’ and ‘Michelle’. Another name that most people wrongly judged female was ‘Chanti’. The researchers speculated that they interpreted the initial ‘Ch’ as a sh-sound, and associated that with names like ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Cher’, while the –i ending was reminiscent of ‘Heidi’ and ‘Lori’.

This study shows that even unique names are not invented without reference to pre-existing conventions. Their creators are guided both by the overarching convention that names should mark gender in some way, and by the more specific conventions that define what is gender-appropriate in terms of sound, spelling, structure and sometimes meaning (we don’t generally call boys by flower names like ‘Poppy’ and ‘Lily’, for instance).

But in this domain as in others, gender norms are contested rather than monolithic, and there are differences between social groups. There’s evidence, for instance, that mothers with college-level education tend to resist giving their daughters stereotypically feminine names, and their search for alternatives can sometimes set wider trends.

A case in point is the recent popularity of the names ‘Erin’, ‘Lauren’ and ‘Megan’. According to researchers who have examined this trend, the educated mothers who were the first to adopt these (at the time, uncommon) names were drawn to them because of a desire to steer a course between the extremes of hyper-femininity and androgyny. The –n names marked gender clearly, but in an understated way. Ending in a consonant meant they didn’t have the ‘frilly’ feminine connotations of –ie and –a , but nor did they have the ‘tough’ masculine associations of plosives like the –k in ‘Jack’. There was also a historical precedent in feminine –ine names like ‘Christine’ and ‘Caroline’, which meant that although the new names were distinctive, they were not so different as to seem weird.

It’s been suggested that today’s most popular girls’ names may answer a similar need for girls’ names that are neither excessively feminine nor aggressively unfeminine. Pondering the rise of ‘Emily’, ‘Isabelle’ and ‘Amelia’, Pamela Haag comments:

These are all lovely, pretty names—earnest, formal, dignified, and strong. They’re also palpably old-fashioned if not anachronistic. They convey strength with tradition; independence with convention; spunkiness with formal propriety; and rebelliousness, but with a softening, antique patina.

Haag thinks the vogue for these old-fashioned names is a sign of our conservative times. The key point is that they are conventionally feminine without being too frivolously girly: pretty, but also ‘dignified and strong’. This may appeal to women who are feminist up to a point, but do not have the revolutionary ambitions of earlier generations; mothers who, as Haag puts it,

want girl power for their daughters, but they want girl power that is softer, and not so socially objectionable or polarizing.

While writing this post I read a number of pieces addressing the question of what feminists should call their children. Most suggested naming girls after pioneering feminists and other Great Women of History. This approach does throw up one or two names which would be unusual and daring choices (like ‘Boudicca’ and ‘Sojourner’), but mostly it just recycles the conventionally feminine names which women were given in the past. None of the writers suggested inventing new feminist names (one piece was headed ‘18 feminist names you can give your kid without naming them Katniss’), and no one questioned the basic assumption that children should have clearly gendered, distinctively masculine or feminine names.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with commemorating our herstory and honouring our feminist foremothers by passing on their names to a new generation. I’m not suggesting that our goal should be to replace ‘Amelia’ with ‘Katniss’ (though ‘Katniss’ might yet make an appearance: last year 244 British girls were named ‘Arya’, and nine were called ‘Daenerys’). And I’m certainly not in the business of telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t call their child. But I do find it interesting that current patterns of gender differentiation in English personal names are so similar to those reported in research using data that goes back a hundred years. The specifics of our naming choices may be susceptible to fads and fashions, but the underlying principles seem remarkably resistant to change.

*Thanks to Elinor Payne (I’ve simplified some things in the interests of accessibility to non-specialists: that’s my responsibility, not hers).

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