Guys and dudes

Some years ago in North Carolina, students taking a class on gender inequality designed a card that could be left in restaurants or shops where staff made a habit of addressing women as ‘(you) guys’. The card drew attention to the problems with that expression. As Sherryl Kleinman, who had taught the class, explained:

While being labeled “one of the guys” might make [women] feel included, it’s only a guise of inclusion, not the reality. If we were really included, we wouldn’t have to disappear into the word “guys.”

‘Guys’ is not the only offender here: women can also be addressed as ‘man’ and ‘dude’. And Kleinman is not alone in finding this problematic. Many feminists regard these address terms in the same way they regard words like ‘chairman’, which purport to include women but actually don’t (most English-speakers in most contexts interpret the –man suffix as meaning a male person rather than just a person). For Kleinman, the women who accept these appellations are displaying internalized sexism. They’re flattered to be treated as honorary men.

I don’t dispute that words like ‘chairman’ are sexist, but I think address terms like ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are a more complicated case. For one thing, they are slang, whereas words like ‘chairman’ belong to a formal, official register. One reason why –man words continue to be used is because of the belief that inclusive alternatives (like ‘chair’) are ‘incorrect’. By contrast, no one says ‘guys’ or ‘dude’ because they’ve been told to: these are colloquial terms which speakers have adopted for their own reasons. Whatever those reasons are, they’re unlikely to be the same ones that motivate the use of the generic masculine in formal contexts.

There’s a clue to the reasons in the observation that ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are most often used gender-inclusively when they’re being used to address people directly.* Addressing people directly brings the interpersonal function of language into the foreground: you’re choosing your words to say something about how you see yourself, the person you’re talking to, the situation you’re in and the relationship between you. In the case of greeting people, for instance, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen’ establishes a more formal and distant relationship than ‘hello, everyone’, or ‘hi there, folks’. And it’s not just a question of formality: different address terms convey other, more nuanced meanings. ‘Hi, guys’ is in the same informal territory as ‘hi there, folks’, but it’s not an exact equivalent. Like ‘folks’, ‘guys’ is relaxed and friendly, but where ‘folks’ has a warm vibe, ‘guys’ keeps things cool.

‘Dude’ is a similar case. In an article on the way it’s used in contemporary American English, Scott Kiesling argues that the attitude or stance ‘dude’ expresses is one of ‘cool solidarity’. Addressing someone as ‘dude’ suggests a solidary relationship between equals—friendship, camaraderie, mutual respect—but it does not imply intimacy or sexual interest. (A colleague’s students once told her that if a woman addresses a man as ‘dude’ that’s a clear sign she isn’t interested in dating him.) It’s casual rather than intense, nonchalant rather than passionate, cool rather than hot.

‘Dude’ is also ‘cool’ in the sense of ‘anti-establishment, rebellious, non-conformist’. It was first used as an address term in the 1930s by African American zoot-suiters and Mexican American pachucos (both subcultures known for sharp dressing—an earlier meaning of ‘dude’ was ‘dandy’), and since the 1980s it’s become associated with the surfers and slackers of the post-baby-boomer generation.

Kiesling’s research, conducted with students at the University of Pittsburgh, found that ‘dude’ was typically used between non-intimates of the same sex. It was used most frequently by men talking to other men, but the second most frequent ‘dude’-users were women talking to other women. Cross-sex uses, in either direction, were significantly less common. The purposes for which men and women used ‘dude’ were more similar than different. Men made much more use of it as a greeting (‘hey, dude’, ‘what’s up, dude’), but both sexes used it as a token of sympathy or commiseration (like an oral equivalent of the sad face emoji), and to soften the potential offensiveness of speech acts like criticisms and commands (‘dude, turn-signal!’)

Here I want to pause and make a general point about the relationship between language and gender. The fact that a linguistic form is used more by men than women, or vice-versa, does not justify the conclusion that what the form actually expresses is masculinity or femininity. In many cases, what the form directly expresses is what linguists call ‘stance’: an attitude, a feeling, a point of view. But since many attitudes and feelings are culturally coded as either ‘masculine’ (e.g. aggression) or ‘feminine’ (e.g. modesty), the forms which communicate them may acquire a secondary association with gender. This is how Kiesling approaches the meaning of ‘dude’. What ‘dude’ directly expresses is not masculinity, it’s cool solidarity. But it’s associated with masculinity (and used more frequently by men than women) because its primary meaning, cool solidarity, has been culturally coded as a ‘masculine’ attitude.

I’m making this slightly theoretical point because it helps to explain why I don’t agree with Sherryl Kleinman’s suggestion that women who use terms like ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are trying to claim ‘honorary man’ status. Rather I agree with Scott Kiesling, who argues that women use ‘dude’ for the same reason men do: because they want to express cool solidarity—especially, the evidence suggests, with other women. Rather than displaying internalized sexism, they’re like the little girl who sometimes wants to play with toy cars rather than dolls. It’s not that she wants to be a boy, she just doesn’t see why girls shouldn’t play with cars.

The question feminists should be asking about women calling each other ‘dude’ or ‘you guys’ isn’t why they’re talking like men (they aren’t), it’s why they can only express cool solidarity with other women by using prototypically male address terms. Aren’t there any female terms that would serve their purpose just as well?

Thinking about that, the only serious candidate I could come up with was the African American ‘girl(friend)’. If we leave aside obscenities and formal titles, most of the terms used to address women in English are terms of endearment: ‘baby’, ‘cookie’, ‘darling’, ‘doll’, ‘duck’, ‘hen’, ‘honey’, ‘pet’, ‘sweetie’, and so on. When they’re used between female friends these terms convey intimacy rather than cool solidarity, and when they’re used to women by male non-intimates, they also convey that the addressee is being belittled, sexually objectified, or both. Either way, they don’t do the same job as ‘guys’ or ‘dude’. Or ‘bro’, ‘bruv’, ‘buddy’, ‘fella’, ‘mate’ and ‘pal’. The difference between ‘bro’ and ‘baby’ is like the difference between a fist-bump and a pat on the head. Perhaps that’s another reason why women have adopted male address terms: to avoid being patronized, infantilized and sexualized.

The abundance of male solidary address terms, and the dearth of female equivalents, speaks to the differing attitudes our culture has historically held towards male and female homosociality (i.e., same-sex, but non-sexual, relationships). As many feminists have observed, male homosocial relationships—forged in institutions like boys’ boarding schools, college fraternities, sports teams, the armed services, trades unions, Masonic lodges, etc.—are important for the functioning of patriarchal societies, and they’ve been celebrated in everything from folksongs to Hollywood blockbusters. Female homosociality, by contrast, has been hidden, trivialized and negatively stereotyped. Women have traditionally been taught to value heterosexual and family relationships above female friendships; they have also been portrayed as catty, quarrelsome and incapable of solidarity with other women.

On the other hand, women don’t experience the same pressure as men to keep their same-sex relationships ‘cool’. It’s OK for women to depend on one another emotionally; it’s OK for them to express affection both verbally and physically. For men, however, these ways of relating to other men are at odds with the norms of heterosexual masculinity. In her book Deep Secrets, the psychologist Niobe Way has documented the process whereby boys who, as young teenagers, would say without hesitation that they loved their closest male friends, turn away from intimate same-sex relationships as they progress through adolescence. They fear being labelled gay: ‘“no homo” becomes their mantra’, Way tells us. She also tells us that many of her subjects found the loss of their emotional connections with other men a deeply painful experience.

Though it is part of the apparatus that maintains men’s social dominance, the ‘be independent, be cool, no homo’ ethos evidently has costs for individual men. It also has costs for women, since men who subscribe to it see their girlfriends and female friends as the only acceptable source of emotional support.

But just as men sometimes want more intimacy in their friendships, women sometimes want to turn down the emotional temperature. Cool and casual has its attractions for both sexes. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If women want to be addressed as ‘guys’ and ‘dudes’ I’m not going to tell them they’re betraying the feminist cause. (Particularly if the alternative is being addressed as ‘babes’ and ‘dolls’.) In language as in life, you do your best with whatever you’ve got.

* Just to clarify (since the point has been raised on Twitter): I‘m not suggesting that all uses of ‘guy(s)’ and ‘dude’ are inclusive. When they’re used as address terms these words usually include women, but when they’re used for reference (‘the guys in the office’, ‘that dude who works in the coffee shop’) the reference will usually be understood as male-only.  There are some signs that may be changing, but for now, if you’re talking about people rather than directly to them, it’s still good feminist advice to go easy on the ‘guy’-talk. 

School for sexism

This week, it was announced that schools in England are being issued with new guidelines on combatting sexism and gender stereotyping. This initiative follows research conducted for the Institute of Physics (IoP), which found that most schools took sexism less seriously than other kinds of prejudice and discrimination. According to the IoP’s report,

All the schools had policies to counter racist, homophobic and sexist language. However, in almost all cases, infringements in the last case were treated less seriously than the other two. Often, during a visit, the Senior Leadership Team would assert that there was no problem with sexist language, only for the classroom teachers to refer to some cases and the students to report that it was an everyday reality. Such language was often dismissed as ‘harmless banter’, but many of the students, particularly girls, did not see it as such, and, in extreme cases, it verged on bullying.

The IoP’s main concern—one it shares with the government, which co-funded the research—is that girls are being deterred from studying science subjects by the sexist attitudes they encounter in school. Language is only one of the issues the report urges schools to tackle (others include timetable conflicts, poor careers advice and the presentation of subjects like maths as too difficult for most students). But language was the main theme picked up in media reporting on the new guidelines, with many news outlets dramatically proclaiming that children ‘as young as five’ were going to be ‘banned’ from using certain words.

The Sunday Times’s report, for instance, was headlined ‘No more sissies in the playground’. The story continued:

IT’S been banned in the workplace, in universities and from the airwaves. Now children as young as five will be told to cut out sexist language. The days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake” or issuing orders to “man up” or “go make me a sandwich” may be brought to an end.

The Telegraph’s headline was ‘The “sexist” words your children are no longer allowed to use’, followed by the information that ‘teachers are to be issued guidelines from the Institute of Physics detailing the words which are to be banned from the playground’. The Mail had ‘Saying ‘sissy’ is sexist, teachers tell pupils of five in new government drive to stamp out gender stereotypes’.

I think we can guess why these newspapers were so keen on the language angle. They’ve known since the heyday of ‘political correctness gone mad’ that nothing stirs up the wrath of Middle England like a story about someone trying to ban words. Never mind that no sane parent permits total free expression for the under-fives (think how wearing all those mealtime conversations about poo would get): we can’t have a bunch of feminazis (cunningly disguised as physicists) telling our kids what they can or can’t say. An Englishboy’s playground is his castle, FFS!

This reporting only underlined the point that sexism isn’t taken as seriously as other forms of prejudice. Would any reputable newspaper talk about ‘the days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “Paki” and “wog”’? (And yes, I know those days aren’t over; the point is that most people at least pretend to think they should be.) Rather than being outraged by the idea of telling primary school children to watch their words, shouldn’t we be asking why ‘children as young as five’ are using sexist language in the first place?

We may not want to think that this is happening among children still at primary school, but unfortunately the evidence says it is. In 2006 a study carried out for the National Union of Teachers found that around half of the primary school teachers surveyed had witnessed boys using sexist language to girls, and over a third had witnessed examples they were willing to describe as bullying or harassment. Almost one in five of these teachers had themselves been on the receiving end of sexist verbal abuse from pupils, and two in five had seen colleagues abused in this way.

There is also evidence suggesting that what teachers see and hear is only part of what actually goes on in our schools. Girl Guiding UK publishes an annual survey of girls’ attitudes: the 2015 survey, conducted with a sample of nearly 1600 girls and young women aged between 7 and 21, found that in the week before they were questioned, over 80% of respondents had experienced or witnessed some form of sexism, much of which was perpetrated by boys of their own age, and some of which undoubtedly occurred in school. 39% of respondents had been subjected to demeaning comments on their appearance, and 58% had heard comments or jokes belittling women and girls. (That was in real life: 53% had also heard such jokes and comments via the media.)

By the time they go to secondary school, girls are conscious of this everyday sexism as a factor which restricts their freedom, affecting where they feel they can go, what they feel able to wear and how much they are willing to talk in front of boys. In the Girl Guiding UK survey, a quarter of respondents aged 11-16 reported that they avoided speaking in lessons because of their fear of attracting sexist comments.

So, the Institute of Physics isn’t just being perverse when it identifies sexist ‘banter’ as a problem that affects girls’ education. It’s to the organization’s credit that it’s saying this shouldn’t be tolerated—and it’s also to its credit that it’s offering practical advice. Its recommendations are sensible, and its report contains many good ideas for teachers to consider.

But there are some things about the report that don’t sit so well with me. It’s striking how many of its examples of sexist language are expressions which are typically addressed to or used about boys—like ‘sissy’, and ‘gay’ used as a term of abuse. Many of the news reports quoted a deputy head teacher whose school in Bristol participated in the research:

We used to say, ‘man up, cupcake’. We’ve stopped saying that. Saying ‘don’t be a girl’ to a boy if they are being a bit wet is also unacceptable.

Now, I don’t dispute that the expressions this teacher mentions are sexist: they tell a boy he’s shit by saying he’s like a girl, and that presupposes the inferiority of girls. But it seems odd to put so much emphasis on boys’ experiences of verbal sexism. In reality, girls are the primary recipients of sexist comments in the classroom and the playground, and some of the things they habitually get called are a lot more degrading than ‘sissy’ and ‘cupcake’.

There’s a deeper difference too. Whereas sexist language used to/about boys targets individual boys who deviate from the assumed masculine norm, sexist language used to/about girls targets girls as a class, just because they are female. True, there are specific insults for girls who are judged insufficiently feminine (‘dyke’, ‘lesbo’) or insufficiently attractive (‘minger’), but there are also more general insults for girls which don’t depend on their behaviour or their appearance. ‘Make me a sandwich’, for instance, is something any male can say to any female. It’s an all-purpose put-down, a way of reminding women that their role is to serve and to obey. Similarly, comments on girls’ bodies—admiring as well as derogatory—are symbolic assertions of the entitlement of boys and men to treat girls and women as sexual objects.

When the Sunday Times talks about ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’, the implication is that we’re dealing with something reciprocal, a ‘battle of the sexes’ in which the two sides are evenly matched. But they’re not evenly matched. What can a girl say to a boy that will make him feel like a commodity, a piece of meat? What popular catchphrase can she fling at him that has the same dismissive force as ‘make me a sandwich’? (A girl once asked participants in an online forum what they thought would be a good comeback for ‘make me a sandwich’: the most popular answer was ‘well, you’d better come back with a goddamn sandwich‘.)

The IoP report does not seem to grasp that there is more to sexism than gender stereotyping. It falls back on the liberal argument that stereotyping harms both sexes equally: it’s as bad for the boy who wants to be a ballet dancer as it is for the girl who dreams of becoming an astrophysicist. But sexism doesn’t harm boys and girls equally, just as racism doesn’t harm white people and people of colour equally. It is the ideology of a system based on structural sexual inequality: male dominance and female subordination. You can’t address the problem of gender stereotyping effectively if you don’t acknowledge the larger power structure it is part of.

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).