The clue’s in the name

The lawyer Miriam González Durántez was unimpressed this week when she was invited to speak at an International Women’s Day event by someone who addressed her as ‘Mrs Clegg’ (she is married to the MP and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg).  The Daily Mail deplored her ‘aggressive feminism’,  while below the line its readers, inevitably, complained about bloody foreigners with no respect for British traditions.

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, Emily Thornberry MP–who is not a foreigner but rather the Shadow Foreign Secretary–protested to the Speaker after Theresa May called her ‘Lady Nugee’ (Thornberry’s husband, it transpires, is Sir Christopher Nugee).  Whereas ‘Mrs Clegg’ seems to have been a careless mistake, ‘Lady Nugee’ was evidently a deliberate taunt. Even as May apologised, she found it necessary to inform the House that she herself had been known by her husband’s name for the last 36 years.

You might have thought that if there was one thing we could all agree on in the year 2017, it would be the right of every individual to be referred to by the personal name of their own choice. English law affirms that right: as long as you aren’t trying to defraud anyone, you may go by whatever name you like. So why is there still so much controversy about what married women choose to call themselves?

Let’s begin, logically enough, at the beginning. In her informative and readable account of the history of marital name-changing, Sophie Coulombeau explains that hereditary surnames were brought to these shores by the Normans who conquered England in the 11th century. (Or to put it in Mail readers’ terms, by bloody foreigners with no respect for Anglo-Saxon traditions.) The Normans also introduced the doctrine of ‘coverture’, according to which wives were vassals, with no legal existence independent of their husbands. It followed that when a woman married she would ‘lose every surname except “wife of”’.

A few hundred years later, this originally alien custom had come to be considered an English tradition. Writing in 1605, William Camden described surnames as the foundation ‘whereon the glory and credit of men is grounded, and by which the same is conveyed to the knowledge of posterity’. Women from wealthy and powerful families shared this view, and over the next two centuries a number of them would petition the King or Parliament for the right to take action to prevent their names from dying out. (Frances Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia is a fictional exploration of this theme, featuring an heiress who can only inherit if her husband takes her name.)

These women’s motivations were more dynastic than feminist, but in the 19th century surnames did become a feminist concern. Probably the best known of all campaigners on this issue was the American abolitionist and feminist Lucy Stone. At her wedding in 1855 the minister read a statement announcing that she would keep her own name, and criticising the laws that

refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer on the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess.

Soon afterwards she challenged the authorities who refused to register a land purchase in the name ‘Lucy Stone’, and was told by a lawyer that, in the US as in England, the prohibition had no legal basis. Later on, though, a number of US states would enact laws to make married women’s access to official documents like drivers’ licenses, and in some cases even the right to vote, conditional on their using their husband’s surname. It was not until the 1970s that these laws were overturned. At that point, women on both sides of the Atlantic were both legally and socially free to choose whether to keep or change their names. That did not, however, put an end to the argument; it only marked the beginning of a new phase.

As with titles (‘is that Miss, Mrs, Ms or Mx?’), and pronouns, the introduction of choice into a previously rigid system makes all the options politically non-neutral. If you stick with tradition you can no longer say you’re doing it because there’s no alternative: you’ll be indicating that your attitudes to marriage are traditional. Rejecting tradition conveys the opposite message. Whatever your reasons for wanting to be called, say, ‘Miriam González Durántez’ rather than ‘Miriam Clegg’ (you might just hate the name ‘Clegg’, or you might want your name to symbolise your Spanish national origins), your preference will be interpreted as a feminist statement. For many women, who are neither die-hard traditionalists nor militant feminists, this situation creates a dilemma. How have they negotiated it over the past 40 years?

All research on English-speaking women’s marital naming choices since the 1970s shows that the introduction of choice has not produced a wholesale shift away from tradition. Both in the US and the UK, the great majority of married women have continued to take their husbands’ names. The size of the majority has fluctuated over time. The percentage of name-keepers increased sharply in the 1970s, rose to a peak in the 1980s, and then held steady for several years before declining noticeably in the 1990s. By 2010 one US study reported that 94% of native-born married women used their husband’s names. More recently it’s been claimed that ‘maiden names’ (an expression I’d like to ban) are on the rise again. If so, though, they are rising from a pretty low baseline.

Married women who keep their original names are not just a minority, they’re a minority of a minority–they are heavily concentrated in the elite professional class. Name-keeping is strongly correlated with having at least one degree, and you’re most likely to be a keeper if both you and your husband have more than one. Another strong correlation is with the woman’s age at marriage. Women who marry in their early 20s are more likely to change their names than those who marry later (a group that overlaps significantly with the category of highly-educated women). Economists have argued that this need not be because the women concerned are feminists. If a professional woman marries when she’s already established a reputation (aka ‘made a name’ for herself), then—regardless of her political beliefs—it makes sense for her not to change her name.

But there are other factors which have been shown to influence women’s choices, and which do seem to be related to social and political attitudes. For instance, religious believers are more likely to change their names than non-believers, and so are women who grew up in small towns rather than big cities.

There are also some racial and ethnic differences. African American women, including those with higher degrees, are more likely to be changers than white women; other women of color, by contrast, are more likely than white women to be keepers. (It’s been speculated that the African American pattern may reflect the historical knowledge among Black women that their enslaved ancestors were denied the right to marry—name-changing in this group may be more meaningful as a symbol of (Black) emancipation than of (female) subservience.)

One study conducted in 2011 investigated the connection between attitudes to marital name-changing and attitudes to gender issues more generally. On the naming question its findings were depressing: a large majority of respondents agreed that it is usually better for a woman to take her husband’s name than to keep her birth name, and a significant minority thought it would be a good idea to revive the old state laws requiring this. The responses are also revealing about what’s really behind one of the commonest arguments for name-changing: ‘everyone in a family should have the same name’. Presented with the statement ‘It’s OK for a man to take his wife’s name when he marries’ (a strategy which would be equally compatible with the ‘one family, one name’ principle), over half of the respondents disagreed, and just over 30% disagreed strongly. Coverture may be legally defunct, but its cultural traces evidently linger on (‘a husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband’).

When respondents were asked to explain why they thought name-changing was or wasn’t preferable to name-keeping, supporters of the traditional practice tended to express what the researchers labelled a ‘collectivist’ rather than ‘individualist’ view of women’s role: they believed it was the responsibility of a wife to put her family first. Not surprisingly, this view was strongly expressed by the most conservative respondents, including some who cited Biblical pronouncements on the authority of husbands over wives. But it was also expressed by some women who considered themselves feminists (though these women did not really explain how it serves the collective good for all family members to share, specifically, the husband’s name).

I found this aspect of the study interesting, because most discussions treat the decision to keep or change one’s name as a purely individual choice, made on the basis of a woman’s personal convictions. Yet when I hear the married women I know discussing their own decisions, I’m always struck by how much of what they say is about other people’s attitudes or feelings. I’ve heard women who kept their names say things like ‘I’m lucky, my husband wasn’t bothered either way’; I’ve heard feminist friends who changed their names say things like ‘I didn’t want to, but it was really important to my parents/in-laws’. Part of what it means to be a woman in our society is that you can’t just disregard others’ feelings—or at least, not without being harshly judged. So in many cases it’s an oversimplification to treat a woman’s choice as a direct reflection of her political beliefs. Her husband’s and both families’ attitudes may be at least as relevant as her own.

As someone who came of age in the mid-1970s, though, I do find it remarkable how controversial this issue has remained. I’d thought I would never blog about this hoary old chestnut of a subject; I’d thought the days were over when even the Daily Mail could make a fuss about a couple of high-profile women not using their husbands’ names. And if I’m honest, despite what I’ve just said about the pressure women feel to consider others, I’m always both surprised and a little disappointed when a student, or a younger colleague, asks me to start calling her by a new, married name.

In my own youth, just keeping the name you’d always had was quite a long way from the cutting edge of ‘aggressive feminism’. I knew several women in the early 1980s who regarded surnames in general as offensively patriarchal, and who had substituted their mother’s given name, or something new-age-y like a colour-term or the name of a tree. I knew one woman who had changed her given name and dropped her surname entirely (though I doubt the resulting nom de guerre will have survived the age of the computer and the tyranny of the drop-down menu). I knew of a commune where all the children had the same last name, ‘Wild’, which belonged to none of their various parents. Does any of this still go on now, or is name-keeping (and its slightly less assertive cousin, hyphenating) as daring as today’s young people get?

When people aren’t invoking the ‘one family, one name’ principle to justify sticking with tradition, they’ll most often be shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘hey, it’s only a name. It doesn’t define me as a person’. But while I understand what they mean, I think they’re overlooking something important. The custom of women taking their husbands’ surnames was historically part of a legal and social system that did define women—as non-persons. And the outcry, even today, when a woman chooses a name that symbolises her independent personhood, suggests that the old assumptions are not yet dead. A woman’s name will be ‘only a name’ when no one cares what it is, or has an opinion on what it should be.

Advertisements

Familiarity and contempt

Earlier this month, in an English court, a man who had just been sentenced to 18 months told the judge she was ‘a bit of a cunt’. To which she replied: ‘You’re a bit of a cunt yourself’. Complaints about her language are now being considered by the Judicial Standards Investigation Office*. But plenty of people applauded her, calling her a ‘hero’, a ‘role model’ and a ‘legend’.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the New York Times reported that sexist endearment terms like ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ were no longer acceptable when addressing women in court. The American Bar Association had adopted Resolution 109, which makes it a breach of lawyers’ professional standards to engage in ‘harmful verbal or physical conduct that manifests prejudice and bias’.

These two stories might seem to belong to different worlds: one where a judge can be hailed as a hero for calling a man a cunt, and another where lawyers can be fined for calling a woman ‘sweetie’. (I can hear the denizens of the manosphere now, muttering darkly about feminazis and their double standards.) But ultimately I think they’re both about the same thing: the ongoing, messy and often confusing struggle over what counts, in the 21st century, as ‘appropriate’ or ‘offensive’ language.

Resolution 109 is an example of a kind of verbal hygiene which has loomed large in recent decades: regulating language-use in an effort to combat prejudice and discrimination. This is popularly known as ‘political correctness’, and it is, of course, highly controversial. Although the resolution passed, it was not unopposed. And opinions were particularly divided on the inclusion of endearment terms in the category of ‘harmful verbal conduct’.

Some of the reasons for this disagreement became apparent when the New York Times invited lawyers to share their views on its Facebook page: the resulting thread attracted more than 500 comments. Many came from female lawyers who shared their own experiences of being addressed with terms they found demeaning:

I was called ‘young lady’ today while I was in court. I am 42.

I have been called honey, sweetie and missy.

Called ‘blondie’ by a sitting federal judge

I’ve been called ‘sweetheart’, ‘honey’, my first name and asked to get coffee.

But there were also a number of contributors who defended the use of endearment terms, arguing that

  1. In some US regions (e.g. the south and south west) the use of endearments is just ordinary politeness.
  2. It’s not just men who use endearment terms and it’s not just women on the receiving end.

As one commenter said, putting the two arguments together:

Good luck with that in Texas. This 70 year-old male has been called [honey] by women for 25 years.

It’s true that there are regional differences in modes of polite address. It’s also true that women use endearment terms to men (as well as to other women: the only potential speaker-addressee pairing you don’t typically get is men using ‘honey’/ ‘sweetheart’/ ‘darling’ to other men—though they may use other comparable terms, like ‘mate’, ‘dude’, ‘bro/bruv’ or—to younger men—‘son’). But that doesn’t mean the women lawyers’ complaints are unjustified. To see why, let’s take a closer look at the underlying sociolinguistic principles.

In 1960 Roger Brown and Albert Gilman published a now-classic article entitled ‘The pronouns of power and solidarity’.  Its subject was the alternation (lost in modern standard English, but still present in many other languages), between familiar and polite second person pronouns (Brown and Gilman referred to these in shorthand as T (familiar) and V (polite), from the Latin ‘tu’ and ‘vos’). They pointed out that what these pronouns communicate doesn’t just depend on which one you choose, but also on whether they’re used reciprocally or non-reciprocally. If two people address each other with the same pronoun, either T or V, they are treating each other as equals. Between equals, reciprocal use of the familiar T implies intimacy; reciprocal use of the polite V implies a more distant relationship of mutual respect. When the pronouns are used non-reciprocally, however, they imply an unequal, hierarchical relationship: the higher-ranked person addresses the lower-ranked person with T, while expecting to receive V in return. In this situation, the speaker who addresses you with T is not saying ‘I think of you as an intimate’, but rather ‘I think of you as an inferior’.

The same kind of analysis can be extended to other forms of address like names and titles. In hierarchical institutions these are used reciprocally among peers but non-reciprocally between people at different levels of the hierarchy. In the military, for instance, you address subordinates by their surnames and superordinates with ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’.  School students call their teachers ‘sir’,  ‘miss’ or ‘Mr/Ms X’, while teachers call students by their given names.

Exchanges between unacquainted adults offer more freedom, but our choices are not just random. In customer service interactions (to take one common situation in which strangers address each other), the server may call the customer by a generic respect title like ‘sir/madam/ma’am’, a familiar term like ‘honey/dear/mate’, or neither. Here the choice will probably depend not only on the status of the two parties (e.g., their relative ages), but also on the type of establishment and the service being provided. I’d be surprised to be called ‘honey’ in a fancy restaurant, but I wouldn’t find it surprising in a diner. Nor would it offend me in a diner, because I wouldn’t suspect the server of patronising me: I’d understand the endearment as a form of politeness, treating a stranger like a friend or family member to signal that you are positively disposed towards them. In more formal contexts, though, politeness demands an overt show of deference (which can be accomplished by using a respect title), or at least the avoidance of familiarity (which can be accomplished by using no address term at all).

The fact that the same address forms (T/V pronouns, given names/family names, endearment terms/respect titles) have both a ‘power’ meaning and a ‘solidarity’ meaning offers a useful get-out clause for men who are accused of talking down to women. They can say, in effect, that the women have mistaken one meaning for the other: what they intended to communicate was a solidary form of politeness (‘I am positively disposed towards you’), but the women have interpreted it as an example of the power meaning (‘you are my social inferior’) and taken offence where none was meant.  Several of the comments on the Times’s Facebook thread suggested that women don’t find it easy to dismiss this possibility. Knowing that endearment terms can sometimes be used in a solidary way, even when the parties are not actually intimate, they do wonder if they might sometimes be judging men’s motives unfairly.

But if we’re not sure whether the person who calls us ‘honey’ is being courteous or condescending, the analysis I’ve just sketched out gives us some tests we can apply. One is whether there is, or could be, reciprocity: if an address form is used non-reciprocally, you’re generally looking at power rather than solidarity. With judges, in particular, the answer is clearly ‘no’—a lawyer could not address the judge as ‘honey’ and then claim they were ‘just being polite’. Some Facebook contributors did suggest that if the endearment came from opposing counsel (i.e. a peer rather than a superordinate) you could retaliate by addressing him similarly. But their comments implied this would be seen as a hostile act. So, it seems the ‘just being polite’ excuse does not pass the reciprocity test, at least in the courtroom context.

Context, of course, is an important influence on what counts as polite behaviour, and the second test we can apply to doubtful cases is whether the claim that someone ‘was only being polite’ is contextually plausible. Are we dealing with a situation (like getting served in a diner or at a market stall) where we’d expect informal friendliness, or is it the kind of situation where we’d expect to hear the more formal language of distance and deference?  One contributor to the Facebook thread, a lawyer practising in Canada, made an interesting observation on that point. She hadn’t had to deal with being called ‘honey’, she said, because the Canadian courts (like the British ones they are presumably modelled on) require lawyers to refer to one another formally using stock phrases like ‘my learned friend’. Some kinds of courts and court proceedings may be less formal than others, with less strict (and less archaic) rules of address, but it’s hard to imagine any court of law being as informal as a diner or a market stall.

Then again, we have the example before us of the judge who called a man she’d just sentenced ‘a bit of a cunt’.  That happened in an English court; why wasn’t it prevented by the contextual norm of formality?

In this case there may be a very specific reason. The man in question had a long history of launching racist tirades at passing strangers. He had been prosecuted after breaching—for the eleventh time—an order prohibiting this behaviour. So, as well as responding to his immediate provocation, the judge might have wanted to give him a taste of what he’d inflicted on many others over the years. I suspect that’s why so many people applauded her: despite the obvious contradiction (using abusive language to someone you’ve just sent to prison for using abusive language), the nature of the man’s offence made her response seem like poetic justice.

I’m not sure the JSIO investigators will share that view: they’ll probably be more concerned that a judge who uses words like ‘cunt’ is compromising the dignity of her office. But from a linguist’s perspective there’s another question here. Should the judge have engaged in any kind of informal exchange with a defendant (regardless of whether obscenities were involved), or should she have maintained the formality of the proceedings by responding to his intervention with a formal rebuke?

Historians of English generally agree that since the late 20th century there’s been a shift towards greater informality in both speech and writing. This has happened, it’s argued, because of changes in the wider society: we’ve become less deferential and more egalitarian, as well as (in Britain), less reserved in our dealings with others. Formal politeness has come to be seen as old-fashioned and patrician—a throwback to the bad old days when everyone wore a hat and kept a stiff upper lip. Institutions which have preserved the traditional formalities, like the law courts and Parliament, are often accused of being remote, inaccessible and off-putting to the ordinary citizen.

Like most people, I have no desire to return to the days of obsequious forelock-tugging and stiff upper lips.  But the contemporary preference for informality and familiarity over formality and distance is not without its problems—especially for women.

Most people are offended or irritated when strangers address them in a way they consider over-familiar. But for women, enforced familiarity and intimacy are more than just irritants: they’re part of the apparatus that’s used to subordinate and control us. Catcalling, casual touching, groping, unwanted personal comments or sexual overtures, being followed on the street, being verbally abused or threatened if you ignore a man’s demand for your attention—these are everyday experiences for women in public places, and they all rest on the assumption that any man has an automatic right to treat any woman as an intimate: get close to her, touch her, make demands of her. The non-reciprocal use of endearment terms to women is another manifestation of the same thing. And if a woman objects to it, the excuses men make (disingenuously or otherwise) are the same ones they make about street harassment. ‘I was only being friendly’. ‘It’s just banter’. ‘Can’t you take a compliment/a joke?’

These excuses can be effective in derailing complaints of sexism. Measures like Resolution 109, targeting discriminatory language, are easiest to apply to cases like racist and homophobic slurs, where the offensiveness of the words is not disputed. They work less well when the issue isn’t the use of an inherently offensive word, but rather the allegedly offensive use of a word which also has legitimate, non-discriminatory uses. Endearment terms are an example: there’s always scope for argument about what the speaker ‘really meant’.

But in contexts like the courtroom we could cut through this by stipulating that professionals must use formal modes of address. No one can deny that endearment terms are informal, so insisting on formality—the reciprocal formality that signals mutual respect between non-intimates—would make their use inappropriate regardless of the user’s intentions.

You might be thinking: ‘but this is 2016!’ As I said before, today it’s usually assumed that what we want in public institutions is more informality rather than less: formal language is seen as elitist and exclusionary, whereas informal language is more inclusive and democratic. But maybe this is something we should reconsider. Many subordinated groups—including women, Black people and working class people—have a long history of being addressed with familiar terms; not as a token of friendship or positive regard, but as a mark of contempt for their ‘inferior’ social status. There is surely something to be said for breaking with that tradition, and showing people the explicit respect that more formal terms communicate. Put simply: intimacy should be our choice, and respect should be our right.

*Update: since this post was originally published the Judge has been cleared of misconduct.

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).