Feminine -O Names: The Hidden Trend

Mar 20th 2014

English is not a gendered language. We don't divide words into male and female, and no letter at the end of a word points to a sex. That holds true even among classic English baby names: Robert and Margaret, Thomas and Agnes, John and Ann.

Yet the -o and -a endings of other naming traditions have taken root, deeply. Take a look at the historical sex distribution in the U.S. of names ending in -a:

versus -o:


Surprisingly, the rise of androgynous naming hasn't changed this -a vs. -o divide. In fact, the male -o dominance in the United States has only gotten stronger over time. Compare a century ago vs. today:

 

 

A major factor in the -o distribution has been the rise of Spanish names, which tend to feature gender-specific endings. (In 1912, the two most common -o names in the U.S. were Leo and Otto. Today, they're Diego and Antonio.) Even beyond Spanish names, though, -o names have remained a tough sell for girls. The names Chloe and Cleo, for instance, offer the exact same set fashionable sounds in different orders. Chloe outpaces the feminine -o name Cleo by a factor of 30 to 1.

But there's more than one way to spell "o."

What about good old Joe? Or Roscoe, or Woodrow? These names end in the -o sound, but not the letter. Back in 1912, that didn't much matter; the whole category was masculine. Today, it's a very different story:

This dramatic change has happened mostly in the past decade. Willow, Shiloh, Meadow and Harlow are now hits for girls. Monroe has flipped from the boys' column to the girls', and Marlowe is poised to overtake the more familiar Marlo. Spelling and sound have diverged.

I think this trend highlights the boundaries of the modern movement toward androgynous names. The male history of -o names gives them a fresh sound for girls, and parents crave freshness. The echoes of masculinity also lend the names an appealing edge. But what most parents want is just the echo: a glimpse of the gender line, without crossing it. The target is the gray zone, rather than a flip from pink to blue. Balancing spelling against sound is one way to stay in that zone.

 

Postscript: Thanks to an astute reader comment, I realize I've actually undercounted this phenomenon by missing some significant "stealth o endings," including -ot as in Margot. Margot vs. Margo is a great illustration of how, in the past decade, spelling has driven the popularity of the "stealth o" names:

 

Comments

1
March 20, 2014 12:34 PM

An acquaintance named her daughter Margot last summer. When she and her husband were debating the name, she lobbied hard for the 't' ending (he wanted the spelling Margo). I have seen the name Margot mentioned many times in the last six months or so in the BNW forums and suspect that it will rise sharply in the next five years.

2
March 20, 2014 1:04 PM

I wonder whether the results about the variant o spellings are really robust. There are only very few popular names with variant o spellings, the raise and fall of only one of them changes the picture radically.

And there are the false friends (for this argument) Chloe and Zoe where the -oe ending is not a variant o spelling.

3
March 20, 2014 5:05 PM

Elbowin wrote:

"I wonder whether the results about the variant o spellings are really robust. There are only very few popular names with variant o spellings, the raise and fall of only one of them changes the picture radically.

And there are the false friends (for this argument) Chloe and Zoe where the -oe ending is not a variant o spelling."

Fair questions, I'm glad you asked! First, I should make clear that the charts of "o-sounding names ending in other letters" show exactly that -- names with a final o *sound*, NOT Chloe and Zoe.

Second, the change is not driven by any single name but by a group of simultaneous risers with varied final letters (e.g. Harlow, Shiloh, Monroe). Overall, significantly more girls now get a sounds-like-o name than an -o name.

Finally, I realize that I actually undercounted the phenomenon! I neglected some possible endings, such as Margot and Margaux. (Thanks, Elizabeth!) I'll make a postscript to the post.

4
March 23, 2014 5:35 PM

"English is not a gendered language."  Actually at one time English did have grammatical gender.  Present-day English indeed does not have grammatical gender, but it does have natural gender. We do divide nouns into masculine and feminine (the correct terms when speaking of gender, grammatical and otherwise) when they refer to males and females (the correct words when speaking of biological sex).  Thus, the word vixen is feminine and takes a feminine pronoun.  If it were to be used as a proper name, it would only be appropriate for a girl.  I have always thought it would make a cool name, on the order of Wolf, a masculine noun appropriate as a name for a male.  BTW the original word for a female wolf was wylf which has fallen into oblivion because the vowel sound represented by the y is no longer part of the English language.  So we are stuck today with 'she-wolf' which would not make a cool given name IMO.  Likewise drake is a masculine noun when referring to ducks and thus if used as a given name should be given to males.  In its archaic sense of dragon I don't know if it is gendered--something had to be laying those dragon eggs.

Professor Tolkien had some fun with the assumption that -o=masculine and -a=feminine in his Appendices to LOTR.  He was well aware that Anglo-Saxon masculine given names often ended in -a (e.g., Offa, Penda, Aella, Anna), and no doubt he had students who assumed that these worthy (and not-so-worthy) kings were girls.  (I had students who made that erroneous assumption.) Thus he notes in the appendix that Bilbo was really Bilba.

As for feminine names ending in -o, there is the pop culture reference Lilo from the Disney productions Lilo and Stich.  I haven't bothered to check in the stats, but I have no sense that Lilo is being used to any extent.   That's perhaps a little odd, given the enormous populaity of Lily/Layla/Lila/Leila/and so forth.  I would advance the proposition that the -o ending (as in Milo and Hugo) really is a turnoff for the parents of newborn girls.  Would Lilo have taken off if Disney had spelled it Liloh a la Shiloh?  Dunno...

5
March 24, 2014 4:32 AM

@miriam:

Good point made. There are more legitimate female names ending in o, like the classical greek Kallisto, being outnumbered by the made up form Callista in the US; or Dido (despite the popular singer not in the SSA stats at all). Also some japanese female names ending in -ko were changed in the US to end in -ka (e.g., Tomiko gives Tomika or Tameko gives Tameka).

P.S. From german (der Drache) I guess that drake meaning dragon was male as well.

6
March 24, 2014 11:22 AM

Yes, OE draca is masculine too.  Somehow that slipped my mind.  But someone/something still has to be out there laying those eggs I saw on Game of Thrones :-).

7
March 27, 2014 2:44 AM

My daughter is Indigo.  I guess that bucks this trend. :)

8
April 5, 2014 2:30 AM

Taylor is an example of yet another hidden-O pattern.

9
April 9, 2014 7:49 AM

I think there are also hidden -a names for boys that are rising in popularity, from Noah and Micah to Elijah and Zacariah (okay, I guess -ah is the only variation I'm coming up with!).

10
April 29, 2014 1:53 PM

And some are getting that "O" ending from nicknames. My daughter, a Cordelia, goes by Coco. We've met Coco's who are Collette, Cosette, Nicola, etc.

11
April 29, 2014 1:59 PM

Yes, I'm hearing "A" names for boys too. In general, I've noticed many young boys with names that graze the gender line (without crossing it, as Laura writes)- names like Luca and Rory and Marlowe.

 

12
March 20, 2018 2:11 PM

My youngest daughter is named Isabeau, which has the o ending. It may not really apply as it is a French name but so is Margot in its origins.