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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Ette-ymology

Boy: hey dude!
Girl: I’m not a dude, I’m a girl.
Boy: OK, dudETTE!

The feminine suffix –ette is alive and well in the 21st century. It has several entries on Urban Dictionary (I’ve quoted one of them above), and I keep stumbling across it in unexpected places. Like the online magazine Gadgette,  ‘the smart woman’s guide to tech, style and life’. (‘Have you ever been talked down to about tech?’ the editors ask. ‘Offered the pink version of a laptop, or asked to flash your breasts to try a new smartwatch? We have’.) Or Stemettes, an organization dedicated to ‘showing the next generation that girls do Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths too’.

These are both feminist enterprises (though only Gadgette actually uses the f-word), and both deserve credit for tackling the problem of sexism in science and technology. But what are they doing with these twee, girly, patronizing –ette names?

Back in the day (in my case, the 1980s), I was among the English-speaking feminists who argued for getting rid of feminine endings like –ess, -ette, -ine and –trix,  on the grounds that they were unnecessary and demeaning. Unnecessary, because in most cases there’s no need to make gender distinctions. If a man and a woman both write books, why call one an author and the other an authoress? Demeaning, because the way gender is marked—by taking the masculine/generic form and adding a feminine suffix—suggests that men are the default for the human species while women are a special case or an afterthought, like Eves fashioned from Adam’s rib.

By the 1980s feminine suffixes were already less common than they had been 30 years earlier, and in the last 30 years their decline has continued. They survive in older words which are still frequently used, like actress, princess and heroine (and also in some less frequently used, ‘exotic’ items like dominatrix), but they aren’t generally added to new terms: there’s no such thing as a coderess, for instance, or an online moderatrix. Yet –ette seems to be bucking the trend, appearing in new coinages like stemette and at the end of words it didn’t get added to in the past (another –ette entry on Urban Dictionary lists not only dudette but also friendette). This is galling, because –ette was often perceived by feminists as the most objectionable of the sexist suffixes.

The reasons for that are to do with the historical meanings of –ette. Though it’s grammatically feminine in its original language, French, -ette did not begin its career in English as a feminine gender-marker. In French it’s a diminutive ending, and that’s also how it functions in most of the English words containing it. You add -ette to a noun to make a word that means ‘a small version of (noun)’, as in cigarette, kitchenette, novelette and vanette.

In use, these –ette words sometimes implied that a thing was small in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense—slight, trivial, of lesser value. In some cases the metaphorical meaning became the primary one: poetette, for instance, meant ‘a young or minor poet’. In the late 19th century this ‘lesser value’ sense gave –ette a new use in names for cheap imitations of expensive materials—like beaverette (a type of fake fur), leatherette, satinette and silkette.

Between the 17th and 19th century English imported a few –ette words that denoted women, including coquette (‘flirt’), brunette, and the theatrical term soubrette. But these were foreign words, borrowed directly from French: it wasn’t until the early 20th century that –ette was used to form a new English word referring to a category of women.

The word in question, first seen in print in 1906 in the Daily Mail, was suffragette. It was not invented by the women it was used to name. Rather it was coined by their political opponents as a response to the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of conventional political tactics, the WSPU’s founder Emmeline Pankhurst had announced that the new organization’s motto would be ‘deeds not words’. Its members engaged in direct action: they threw bricks, set fires and sometimes assaulted the police. The label suffragette was meant to distinguish these militant campaigners from the more moderate suffragists, who confined themselves to lobbying and peaceful protest. It was intended to be divisive, and it was also intended to be derogatory.

Choosing an –ette word for this purpose was strategic, because it allowed the existing meanings of –ette to be exploited for negative effect. Because –ette was a diminutive, substituting it for –ist was a way of belittling the WPSU women and suggesting that their activities were of little consequence. Because –ette appeared in the names of artificial materials, the new term subtly underscored a common criticism of the militants—that a woman who engaged in criminal violence was so unnatural, she could not be considered truly female.

So, suffragette was meant as an insult. But the women who were its targets refused to be insulted. Instead they embraced the word with pride (later they even named their magazine The Suffragette), and found ingenious ways to put a positive spin on the problematic –ette ending. As the historian of English Lynda Mugglestone recounts:

The Pankhursts suggested another version by which –gette was to be pronounced ‘get’ — succinctly indicating the suffragettes’ determination to ‘get the vote’ on equal terms with men.

This is a rare example of feminists successfully ‘reclaiming’ a derogatory label. Suffragette was, from the first, a contested term, with supporters of the WSPU using it positively while their opponents continued to use it negatively. But it’s the positive meaning which has ultimately prevailed. After the battle for the vote was finally won, the word began to lose its negative associations. Today, when almost no one disputes that the cause was just, suffragette is not generally regarded as insulting or demeaning. It has eclipsed suffragist as the commonest descriptive label for the women involved in the struggle, and for many people it is a positive term, associated with qualities like courage, passion and perseverance.

But the same cannot be said of the other feminine –ette words which followed it.

These got off to an unpromising start when, almost a decade after failing to establish suffragette as an unequivocally negative label, their opponents made another, more successful attempt at using -ette to belittle feminists. In 1915, when a group of feminist anti-war activists set out to attend the Women’s International Congress for Permanent Peace which was taking place in The Hague, the Daily Express commented:

All Tilbury is laughing at the Peacettes, the misguided Englishwomen who, baggage in hand, are waiting at Tilbury for a boat to take them to Holland, where they are anxious to talk peace with German fraus over a teapot.

In the course of the 20th century, more –ette terms denoting women made their way into English. The earliest, which like peacette were coined during World War I, were munitionette and farmerette. Undergraduette appeared in 1919, (drum) majorette and (cinema) usherette during the 1920s, purserette in 1931, bachelorette in 1943 and proette (‘a female professional golfer’) in 1955. The 1960s gave us nymphette and jockette as well as patrolette (a title apparently used for women employed by certain motoring organizations). The 1970s produced hackette (‘female journalist’), in the 1980s we had bimbette and modette, and ladette emerged in the 1990s.

Most of these words are not overtly insulting, but they could certainly be called patronizing and trivializing. Many of them are labels for women who either took traditionally male roles (undergraduette, farmerette, purserette, proette) or else adopted ‘masculine’ forms of behaviour (bachelorette, ladette). In these contexts the use of any feminine suffix implies that women are deviations from an assumed male norm; the use of the –ette suffix, in particular, suggests their efforts to emulate men are not to be taken seriously.

It’s also noticeable that in most cases (the exceptions being the wartime job titles) these are labels specifically for young women—another metaphorical extension of the diminutive meaning, ‘little’. The femininity they evoke is immature and unthreatening: more cute, bubbly and fun-loving than competent, serious and powerful.

It’s the combination of cutesy girliness with the idea of women aping men that makes –ette words, so far as I’m concerned, a feminist no-go area. To me, there’s something paradoxical about referring to women scientists as ‘stemettes’ (which implies they are trespassing on male turf, whereas the organization’s message is that STEM fields aren’t just for men), or calling a magazine for female tech enthusiasts Gadgette (isn’t that the linguistic equivalent of offering women ‘the pink version of a laptop’? OK, I know, irony, but there’s a fine line between ironizing sexism and just repeating it, producing what the cultural critic Judith Williamson dubbed ‘sexism with an alibi’).

But you might be thinking: how relevant are the judgments of someone who is (a) a linguist and (b) over 50? It’s a legitimate question. My reaction to –ette words is undoubtedly coloured both by my knowledge of their history and by my own history as a feminist. The women who came up with stemette and Gadgette are younger, and it’s possible their understanding of –ette has little to do with the historical meanings which I find it so difficult to get past. Linguistic change is generational: a key reason why the meanings of words change over time is that each new generation of speakers, encountering the words in their own historical context, may draw conclusions about their meaning which do not exactly coincide with the conclusions that were drawn by a previous generation. If you track this process over a long enough time-period, you’ll find plenty of cases where a word’s meaning has shifted from negative to positive, or vice-versa. For instance, sophisticated was once an insult (meaning ‘dishonest, deceitful’), and complacent was once a compliment (meaning ‘pleasant, obliging’).

Could –ette be making the same kind of journey? It’s not inconceivable, but on balance I don’t think so. Present-day English speakers may not make the old connection with cheap imitation materials, because most of those words have fallen out of use. But –ette remains common in its diminutive sense, so there’s still a basis for younger speakers to deduce that female-referring terms of the form X + ette imply ‘little X’ as well as ‘female X’—and potentially to find that insulting, just as feminists of my generation did.

Time will tell. But meanwhile, if you don’t want a brick through your window, don’t ever address me as ‘dudette’.

This post was partly inspired by Lynda Mugglestone’s English Words in Wartime project. The illustration shows some World War I munitionettes in a factory near Luton.