The Sound of Modern Femininity

Jul 28th 2011

The look of femininity changes over time, from bustles to miniskirts. Does its sound change, too?

In most European naming traditions, an -a ending is the classic marker of a feminine name. That's not to say that every feminine classic ends in -a (e.g. Elizabeth) or that every classic ending in -a is feminine (Joshua). But historically, boys represent a trivial percentage of American -a babies. If parents choose an -a name for their baby girl, it's fair to generalize that they chose that name as proudly, unequivocally feminine.

That makes -a names a nice barometer of name femininity. Historically, the percentage of girls receiving a name ending in -a has hovered around 25%, with only moderate variation. Don't let that overall stability fool you, though. Within that feminine pool, change is roiling.

If you look at the -a names that peaked in the 1930s, for instance, you'll see a trend toward compact, consonant-dense names. Of the 10 most common -a names, 7 are two syllables long. They include the likes of Myrna, Nelda, Norma and Wanda. That was the sound of that era's sparkling all-American girl. (If it's hard for you to imagine Myrna and Norma as modern, glamorous names, look up Hollywood legends Myrna Loy and Norma Shearer.)

By the most recent decade, those dense names had vanished. 8 of the top 10 -a names that have peaked since 2000 are three or more syllables long. Even the 2 shorter names from the 2000s list, Ava and Mia, bear only a single consonant a piece. That's in keeping with a broad trend toward strong vowel sounds.

But there's more. Even the kind of consonants in today's feminine names have changed.

To talk about that, we'll need some special vocabulary. Consonants are the speech sounds we make by closing the vocal tract, either wholly or partially. (With an open vocal tract, we make vowel sounds.) A consonant that blocks the vocal tract stopping all airflow is called a "plosive." That may sound alarming -- we all do like breathing, after all -- but in English it just means a B, P, D, T, G or K sound.

Unless you've studied linguistics, you've probably never consciously thought about those as a related class of sounds. But on some level, we do seem to sense their commonality. The names we choose show it. Take a look at the historical graph of girls' names ending in a plosive followed by -a:

Girls' names ending in plosive + a

They've fallen dramatically out of style as a group. Meanwhile other classes of consonants such as liquids (L and R), fricatives (F, V, S, Z) and nasal stops (M and N) remain as popular as ever with the -a ending:

And a vowel sound + -a is even hotter...but too complicated to graph for these purposes. (Contemplate that Sophia and Andrea end in two vowel sounds, but Patricia and Chelsea do not.)

What separates the plosives from that wide array of other sounds? Well, try this. Say an S sound and draw it out for three seconds: ssssssssss. Nice hissing! Then do the same with E, R and M. Now try B. No luck, eh? Plosives are vocal speed bumps. They stop you cold, if only for a passing instant. The other letters let you continue on smoothly.

That is the essence of today's feminine sound: smooth. Silky smooth.

You see that trend in other contemporary name styles too. For instance, the "blunt object" boys' names like Kurt, Mark, Brad and Frank are fading away. But the smoothness is especially apparent in the feminine -a arena, where it pairs with the trend toward longer, multisyllabic names.

Today's all-American girl is probably an Isabella or Olivia. (In 2009, Isabella became the first #1 name over 3 syllables in American history.) Or maybe she's a Brianna or Nevaeh. Whatever her style, from classic to creative contemporary, she flows like a breeze.

In Search of Truly Androgynous Baby Names

Jul 21st 2011

Are there truly androgynous names? Names that divide so evenly between the sexes that they give you no hint whether the baby is a boy or girl? There are, but fewer than you might think.

Here are the names given to 500 or more total babies last year that had the most even sex ratios. (The numbers listed are percentage females minus percentage males, so that a perfectly unisex name would come out as 0% and a name with a 45/55 F/M distribution would be -10.)

Name F%-M%
Dakota 0.5
Jessie 1.5
Quinn 1.8
Justice -3.7
Dominique 7.7
Rory -10.5
Jaylin 13.5
Jaidyn 18.6
Casey -18.6
Amari -20.3
Riley 20.9
Rowan -22
Emerson 22.8
Armani -23
Harley 24.2

As you see, only 5 names have a gap < 10%, but all of the names on the list could be considered "unguessably androgynous."

What does an even sex ratio mean for these names long-term? Are they really in a stable unisex balance, or are we just looking at a list of names in mid-transition, changing from one sex to the other? In generations past, an even ratio would have been a sign that a boy's name was heading toward the girl's side, never to return.

For a peek into the likely future, let's take a look at the recent past. Below are the most unisex names from 10 years prior, with their female/male percentages then and now.

Name F-M 2000 F-M 2010  
Peyton -0.8 +30.6  
Devyn +0.9 +8.1  
Jaiden -2.0 +18.6  
Armani +4.3 -23.0  
Skyler -6.8 -35.1  
Casey -9.1 -18.6  
Payton +13.1 +60.5  
Avery +14.4 +59.5  
Riley -14.5 +20.9  
Jessie +14.8 +1.5  
Justice -15.8 -3.7  
Harley +17.1 +24.2  
Sage +17.3 +41.5  
Ashton -20.4 -89.4  
Amari +33.3 -20.3  

A handful of names actually repeat from the 2000 list to 2010, showing stable unisex balance. But other names have tilted significantly, and now favor one sex by as much as a 20:1 ratio. Notably, there's little pattern to the direction of the tilts. A balanced name seems as likely to move toward the male side as the female.

If you like true androgyny in a name, the good news is that it does seem possible to maintain it. The bad news is that any given name's path is maddeningly unpredictable. Surnames, word names, creative spellings; all have examples moving in all directions. Some of the biggest moves -- Ashton shifting masculine, Dakota moving from the male column to top this year's unisex list -- were driven by celebrities. Yet despite a prominent male Peyton, football star Peyton Manning, both spellings of Peyton tilted toward the feminine.

The upshot: when you choose an androgynous name, you should choose it with the understanding that by the time your child is an adult, the name could fall anywhere on the masculine/feminine spectrum.

About That New York Times Article: Studying Baby Name Trends

Jul 14th 2011

On June 24, the New York Times Magazine ran a short piece about baby name trends. I found it puzzling, but let it pass -- if I attempted to correct every mis-statement about names in the press, I'd never have time for anything else. I've received so many questions about this particular article, though, that I figured I should comment.

To be blunt, much of the article is off-base. The evidence doesn't support its basic premise; in fact, even the graphs the writer supplies to illustrate his point don't support his statements. I was also baffled by some of the analysis, such as the suggestion that a recent nostalgia craze for the top American baby names of the 1900s could be based on Jane Austen films. (I must have missed the part in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth and Jane do the Charleston.)

Rather than simply attacking the article, though, I'd like to use this as a case study of what I do when I come up with a hypothesis about baby name trends. Here's the writer's core claim:

"About two decades ago, an entire generation of girls’ names — those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — started coming back into fashion...Now the nostalgia wave, which peaked in 2004, is ending."

Interesting concept. How would we know if it's true? First, let's paint a picture of what that proposed trend would look like. We'd expect to see a broad wave of girls' names that were popular around 1900 reappear in the early 1990s, hit a new peak in the early-mid 2000s, and then decline sharply in the late 2000s. Here's that pattern in graphical terms:

trend graph

OK, now let's test our theory. The obvious approach is to look at the names popular around 1900 and see if their historical graph resembles the prediction above. Here's a graph of the top 50 girls' names of the year 1900:

Top girls' names of 1900

Hmm. To start with, the claim that "an entire generation of girls' names" from that era has come back is clearly false. In fact, it takes only a glance at the top names of that generation -- names like Mildred, Florence, Dorothy, Frances, Gladys, Ruth -- to know that 2004 was no repeat.

As for the "nostalgia wave" in the 1990s & 2000s, you can, indeed, see a tiny bump around that period. The trick is, it's small enough that removing one hit name makes the "wave" disappear altogether. (More about that one name later.)

Does this disprove our theory? Not necessarily. Maybe it's a mistake to include names like Mary that aren't tied to one particular time period. Instead of looking at the most popular names of the 1900s, let's look at the most typical names, the ones most tied to that time period. Here's a graph of all of the girls' names that peaked in the 1900s decade (you can graph that with the Expert NameVoyager):

Nope, no dice. Very few of them have come back, and the ones that have appear to be still rising. Same story for the names that peaked in the decades before and after the 1900s.

But let's not give up yet. Perhaps the fall of the nostalgia names that did come back has been the dramatic story. Have antique revivals plummeted as other styles held steady? Let's graph the top falling girls' names of the 2000 decade:

Fastest falling girls' names of the 2000s

Again, no. No matter how you slice and dice the data, you're just not going to come away with the Times writer's conclusion.

Certainly, you can find some examples of individual names that fit the pattern he described...if that's what you set out looking for. (Even so, some of his examples are mistaken. I think he may have been misled by the fact that his data set started with the year 1880. A name like Hannah actually peaked in the early to mid 1800s and was already in deep decline by the period he looked at.) But to make any broader claims, you have to look at the whole population, including facts that could prove you wrong.

The truth is that antique revival names are a subtle and complex phenomenon of sound and style. For instance, parents drawn to actual revivals like Grace also tend to favor "faux antiques" like Olivia and Ava -- names that sound like our romantic image of Victorian days, regardless of the reality of the matter. Plus the names parents choose from the past tend to sound more like contemporary hits than like the typical names of the old days. The hit antiques Sophia and Amelia, for instance, are closer in sound to Arianna, Malia, and Saniya than Mildred and Florence. And by the way, Amelia and Sophia are positively soaring. The "nostalgia trend" is far from dead.

Where did the writer's claim come from, then? I don't pretend to have any inside knowledge of his process, but indulge me for a moment as I speculate.

To me, the really telling bit in the article is the Jane Austen reference. Why would you think Austen had anything to do with a 1900s revival? As a group, her heroines' names don't follow the pattern described in the article at all. Not Jane or Elizabeth (or Lizzie or Eliza), not Marianne or Elinor or Anne or Catherine (in any of their spellings), and definitely not Fanny. But Emma? Ah, Emma.

As it happens, Emma is that "one name" I mentioned in the 1900 graph that drove the tiny bulge. And it's the one Austen name that fits, too. Could it be that the writer started off looking at the name Emma, and over-extrapolated an entire trend from it?