Monday, December 07, 2009

Masculinity and Female Names

In this post, I am aim to look at the changing nature of how masculinity is achieved in female names, with particular attention being given to US. My instinct tells me that in the late 19th and early 20th century, masculinity was found through the feminisation of male names – common examples being Frances, Julia and Josephine, which could be shortened to unisex nickname such as Fran and Joe. Nowadays, the emphasis has shifted to wholesale adoption of male names and surnames on females such as Madison, Alexis and Taylor. Such an adoption has led to a decline in the feminisation of female names, as masculinity can be acquired from adopting male names instead. Through looking at the top 1000 names for the decades of 1900s, 1950s and 2000s, I intend to prove the veracity of this assumption, as well as think about reasons why there has been a change.

For each name, I intend to assign whether they are a 'female name', 'male name or surname', 'feminisation of a male name' or a 'word name'. These categories can be defined and explained as followed:

Female Name: These are names that do not have an obvious masculine connection. For example, Elizabeth, Sarah, Catherine and Jasmine. Flower and plant names are included in this category, as they are inherently feminine.

Male name or surname: These are included together as surnames have traditionally been adopted by males, and more recently have made the cross-over into female names. It can be difficult to separate whether a name was chosen because it was a surname, or because it was associated with being a 'male name'. Examples include Madison, Jordan, Jocelyn and Kennedy.

Feminisation of male name: These are male names that have been feminised, usually through the addition of 'a', 'etta', 'elle', or 'ine'. For example, Olivia, Gabrielle, Makayla and Josephine. This category also includes more masculine nicknames that could have come from female names, such as Terry (from Teresa or Terence), Mattie (from Matilda or Matthew) and Allie (from Alexander or Alice). Male nicknames that do not seem to directly derive from any common female name such as Jamie, Jimmie, Tommie and Johnnie are included in the male name or surname category.

Word name: These are words and places that have been adopted as names, and do not carry such obvious original gender biases as female names. For example, Destiny, Robin, Brooklyn and Amber.

There are various names that do cross categories, and having to organise 3000 names into these categories means that there is room for human error. The intention of compiling these statistics is to look at the broad trends not at individual names, so this should not make much difference to the broad trends.

The organised data can be found here.

What it shows:

First, the obvious – between the 1900s and 2000s, there has been a decline in the % of children being given names in the top 1000. In 1900s and 1950s, around 90% of children were given a top 1000 name, in the 2000s this has declined to 69%. This has the effect that while analysing the top 1000 for 1900s and 50s will be fairly accurate for general name trends, it is difficult to tell whether in the 2000s, if names outside the top 1000 follow the same trends and separate into the same proportions in terms of categories as the names outside the top 1000.

It should also be noted that, before I start, the top 1000s from 1900s and 1950s contain male names such as James, William and Charles. The appearance of these names is generally put down to incorrect data input at birth, and assignation of the wrong gender to various names, and studies of other records from the period such as censuses show that that hundreds of parents were not naming their sons Elizabeth and daughters James. In the case of the 1900s records, incorrect assignation of gender comprises less than 0.1% so I have included them, as they make little difference to the overall percentages.

'Female' names have the largest percentage in each of the three time periods, although this proportion decreased over time. In 1900s, almost ¾ of names fall into the 'female' category. By 2000, only close to 40% fall into this category – although 31% of names were not recorded in the top 1000.

Similar proportions of feminised names are found in the 2000s and 1900s – around 12%. However, this doubles to 24% in the 1950s. The 1950s seem to be a bridge between the more old-fashioned feminisations such as Ernestine and Alberta, and the newer ones such as Christine and Stephanie.

Male names and surnames, and word names barely feature in the 1900s lists. Male names and surnames are mainly bolstered by the appearance of Evelyn – been used as an elaboration of the name Eve and so is one of those names that is difficult to categorise. Word names in the 1900s are formed mainly of jewel names- such as Pearl, Ruby, Opal and Jewel itself, as well as a few place names that have mainly fallen out of use now, such as Missouri and Florida.

In the 1950s, male names and surnames, and word names have both increased to 3% each. Male names and surnames is mainly made up of 'y' ending surnames such as Shirley, Beverly, Kimberly and Kelly. Word names are more a mix of places such as Sharon and Shannon, nature names such as Robin, Dawn and Ginger, jewel names, and abstract virtues such as Joy, Faith, Gay and Hope.

In the 2000s, there has been a large increase in the number of surname and male names, which now comprise 13% of names. Unlike previously, several male names feature prominently such as Alexis and Morgan. Additionally, the majority of surnames have previously been used as male names such as Ashley, Taylor and Sydney, while there is a small minority that seems to solely have emerged as a female name, such as Madison, Hailey and Courtney. The highest position of a male name or surname in 2000s is #2, held by Madison, and there are three other names from this category in the top 20. In 1950s, the highest position was Joyce at #29, and in the 1900s, it was Evelyn at #38 (or Vivian at #129, or if you want a solidly male name, Bertie at #235).

Word names comprise 5% in 2000s, and there seem to be more place and landscape names such as Savannah, Brooke, Sierra, Brooklyn and Brittany. More abstract ideas such as Destiny, Trinity, Genesis and Serenity have also appeared, and these appear arguably to be less connected to traditional virtues.

Here are some pie charts that portray visually what I have clumsily tried to explain in words:




A few more things to look at, before trying some actual analysis. First, the top 20s. In the 1900s, 18 names from the top 20 fall into the 'female' name category, with the other two – Frances and Bertha, being feminisations. In the 1950s, 5 of the top 20 are feminisations – Patricia (at #3), Sandra, Carol, Brenda and Janet, and one is a word name – Sharon. The rest are female names. The 2000s are much more of a mix- 13 of the names are still 'female', but there are 4 male names or surnames – Madison (at #2), Ashley, Alexis and Taylor, and 2 feminisations – Olivia and Brianna.

Some analysis:

First, does the gender affiliation of a name really mean anything? We live in a time when gender differences are being downplayed, in favour of equality and women (and men) are told that we can do whatever we want, regardless of the gender divide. Can the way that we choose the names of our children reflect that – that there is now much more emphasis on the choice of both an individual name, and a gender neutral name. Thus the increase in masculine surnames, and male names on females. Of course, there is also the problem that boys are not being given female names – Elizabeth or Mary are not charting as male names. Should we care about such gender differences? Isn't the adoption of masculinity actually an adoption of having the power to determine one's own life rather than being submissively feminine? I am not here to answer such big questions, my interest remains in issues of naming, and I can so I can only see this current spate of adoption of male names on females as a bad thing because it is so one sided. Rejecting female names in favour of male names would be fine if male names were rejected for males in favour of female names, but instead, we are in danger of losing female names.

In the 1950s, feminisations of male names were popular – such as Patricia, Sandra and Christine – all of which can be shortened to more masculine nickname such as Pat, Sandy and Chris. Why so? Was this a way of honouring fathers, or a way of giving females stronger nicknames, or a way of increasing the name corpus without resulting – as we have in recent years, to adopting abstract words, male names and surnames.

Is the adoption of male names and surnames an attempt at gaining more individuality? Through adopting say, Alexis – known on boys, but originally unknown on girls. These names are recognisable but originally unexpected on girls, similar with the word names such as Destiny. Better communication – especially the internet, means that people are more aware of the popularity of their name in the wider national and global community, and so may aim to have a more individual name for their child. Additionally, there are studies that suggest girls with more feminine names avoid 'masculine' subjects such as maths and science (see here) – desire for girls to have wider opportunities and not tied into their 'feminine' names (of course, you can argue the other way, that women with more masculine names are biased against choosing feminine subjects).

Another look at the subject of femininity and masculinity in names is found here . Hopefully, this post provides some information to help look at the subject.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Elizabeth Through the Ages

*I wrote this post a few months ago for something else, that thing has not materialised so I am publishing it here*

Elizabeth Through The Ages

‘The name boasts more diminutives than it has letters’ – Sophy Moody, 1863

From Ellie to Lizzie, Beth to Lisa, and beyond, one of the name Elizabeth’s strengths is its wide variety of nicknames. Whilst Elizabeth has remained a popular choice since the 15th century, its nicknames and diminutives have gone in and out of vogue. This article principally focuses on such trends in the USA, though there is some reference to UK and other worldwide trends as well.

Popular 19th Century nicknames

Eliza, the earliest nickname for which I have data, was a popular nickname in the UK in the 1840s, when it was in the top 10. Indeed, this popularity was likely reflected in the USA, as its highest position was during the 1880s, when SSA records began.

The other names popular in the late 19th century include Bess and Bessie, which were originally used as nicknames in the 16th century – for example, as an epithet for Queen Elizabeth I of England as ‘Good Queen Bess’, as well as other notable figures such as Bess of Hardwick and Bess Throckmorton, wife of Walter Raleigh. Though Bessie may now elicit response of ‘suitable for a cow rather than a person’, in 1889, the name ranked 9th in the USA, being given to 1.2% of girls born that year and was more popular than Alice, Grace or Sarah.

Another trend for late 19th century nicknames was an ending of ‘-ie’ – Bettie, Elsie, Libbie, Lissie and Lizzie all had their highest popularity in the late 19th century. This was not a trend confined to nicknames of Elizabeth. The US top 50 for 1890 includes Minnie, Annie, Nellie, Carrie, Lillie, Hattie, Jennie, Mattie and Jessie. Lillie and Jennie in particular rank above their more common forms today of Lily and Jenny.

Ella and Elsa were also popular in the late 19th century. Ella was revived in the 19th century by the pre-Raphaelite writers, and ranked #13 in 1880. Elsa is a German diminutive of Elizabeth, and like Elsie, was popular in the 1890s.

The First Half of the 20th Century, and the ‘Bet-’ names

During the first half of the 20th century, ‘Be’ names were really at the fore of the popular Elizabeth nicknames. Betty took over from Bessie as the most popular Elizabeth nickname in the 1910s, while Bette, Bettye and Bettie all experienced continued popularity. From 1928 to 34, Betty was the 2nd most popular girl’s name in USA, just after Mary and surpassing Elizabeth. Betsy and Beth had later surges of popularity, being most popular in the 1960s and 70s.

Betty was not quite as popular in the UK – in 1944, it was only #68, compared with #10 in the US. Influences on Betty’s popularity from the period include the ‘Betty Crocker’ food company, formed in 1921, and the cartoon character Betty Boop, who first appeared in 1930.

Latter half of the 20th century, and the ‘Li-‘ names

Lisa is the name or nickname of Elizabeth that really dominates the latter half of the 20th century. Lisa was #1 in the USA from 1962 to 69, taking the top spot from Mary – a spot that Mary has never regained. As is usual with a popular trend, various other ‘Li-‘ names grew in popularity during the period that Lisa was #1, including Liz, Liza and Lisette. Interestingly, Lissie did not re-enter the top 1000 during this period.

Lisa arrived in the UK a little later than the US, charting at #54 in 1964, but #5 in 1974.

21st century – return of the ‘El-‘ names

While Bessie, Betty and Betsy remain out of style at the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a recent resurgence in the popularity of other late 19th century nicknames such as Ella, Eliza, Elsa and Libby. Elise, which has remained steadily popular throughout the 20th century, is beginning to climb the charts, while a new nickname in the form of Elle has emerged.

In the UK, Ella and Ellie are becoming less popular after a surge in popularity in the early 00s that brought Ellie to the #2 spot. Ella is also a nickname that crosses language borders – appearing in the top 100s of Sweden, Belgium and Norway. It is also very popular at the moment in Australia and New Zealand. Back in the UK, Libby has also climbed into the charts, and was #62 in 2008 in England and Wales.

Isabel and especially Isabella are very popular at the moment in the USA, though I did not include them in this study as they are more derivatives than nicknames. Lily – also a nickname for Elizabeth, is also popular though it is difficult to tell whether this is due to the flower, or due to parents wanting another nickname for Elizabeth (indeed, many are unaware of the link at all!)

What’s next?

After the ‘El’ names have run their course, one can ask which nicknames will return or arrive. It seems likely that the ‘Be’ names will begin to rise again – Betsy and Betty in particular seem to have attracted a vintage chic. This may lead to modern respellings of the names such as Betzi and Bettee. Parents may seek out new nicknames for Elizabeth – Lisa was once unknown, and there are nicknames such as the Cornish Eppow out there waiting to be discovered. Parents may look to the sound of the name, as with Elle, and embrace Isa, Zab or Eth as nicknames.