The Unspoken Formulas of Gender in Names, a guest post by Shannon Houston

Shannon Houston is a senior at Southern Oregon University, majoring in English and Communication.

An email labeled from Sarah paints a picture of a female author in the minds of most recipients. If one hears the name Tom in a given conversation without visualization or verbal confirmation, that person will envision a male bearer of the name. But what about the name Taylor, or the nickname Sam? Humans have the desire and the capacity to identify the characteristics of something or someone by the sound of a name, and typically these characteristics include gender. But what is in the name Sarah that makes it distinctly feminine, or why Tom is exclusively masculine? Why would a mother name her son Shawn, but feel it is more appropriate to call her daughter Shawna? Something like the number of syllables in a name may be enough to indicate to a listener the gender of the name-bearer, or how “strong” that initial syllable sounds. There are unspoken rules and formulas imbedded in how parents decide to name their children and how people then react to those names later on based on the phonetic composition of the name and pre-programmed instincts for interpreting the significance of these components.

Though names are so numerous and so commonplace, they play an extremely important role in each individual’s personality. As a child grows up, if they are not happy with their name they will likely adopt either a more appropriate nickname, choose to be referred to by their middle name (if they have one) or potentially change their name altogether. Names are a sort of personal marketability, and can put up a front of meaning just from the first utterance. If someone has an ex-girlfriend named Sarah, it is not far-fetched to suppose that the name Sarah might carry fairly negative connotations for that individual. If a foreign-exchange student has a difficult-to-pronounce name, that individual may elect to find a more universally-friendly nickname for their friends to use. Even celebrities change their names in an approach to truly be more marketable; Freddie Mercury is a lot easier to remember and pronounce than Farrokh Bulsara. Parents put thought into their child’s name, often catering to what is in style or what would sound good with the parents’ surname. Realistically a parent can only control so much, not knowing if their child will like the name they are given or knowing what type of name would suit the career their child may ultimately want. However, if parents know the gender of their child, they can choose a name that reflects that gender or perhaps the traits associated with that gender to help shape what they might like to see in their child. Precious little princess Sophie sounds a lot more delicate than precious little princess Rowen, does it not?

People are not necessarily conscious of the traits that stick out to make a name appear more masculine or feminine; they can just interpret the name instinctually, based off of practices that have been ingrained into society and the human ear. These traits have existed for centuries, as many of the names that are still common today (and their accompanying genders) date back to classical Greek, classical Latin, vernacular or Biblical usage (Hough 3-4). Names are clearly still being created today, but they continue to fit the gender patterns of names that were established long ago. For example, many of the formerly masculine names that have been adopted as feminine such as Taylor, Payton, and Shannon fit the patterns where masculine and feminine names overlap in terms of length and sound, though it appears that once feminized, these names tend to stay feminized rather than remaining in some sort of unisex limbo. The ways in which masculine and feminine-sounding names differ definitely exist, and appear to be fairly important to the way social culture operates.

So why does this difference even exist? Are names not reflective of individuals, more than reflective of gender? Apparently not, as there seems to be a connection between the “strength” of sounds and which sounds appear in the names of each gender. Sexual selection suggests that strength and body size both play an important role in the traits humans desire their offspring; men should be bigger and stronger while women should be smaller and more delicate (Pitcher, Mesoudi and McElligott 1). When looking at sound specifically, “Frequency Code” and “Motivational Structural Rule Theory” both indicate that a listener associates sounds of a lower frequency with a speaker with a larger vocal apparatus, creating the idea that these types of sounds are more masculine (Pitcher, Mesoudi and McElligott 2). The opposite is suggested for feminine sounds, which theoretically are created through higher frequencies from individuals with smaller vocal apparatuses. So on an auditory and psychological level, Thomas sounds like the kind of guy who could tear down a brick wall while Demetria sounds like she should be inside reading a book, waiting for the kettle to boil. These stereotypes are completely based off of ridiculous assumption, but they nonetheless exist in the world of strict gender binaries.

The stressed syllables of a name are what carry the brunt of a name’s “strength,” and strictly feminine names tend to have a small-sounding phoneme in this stressed syllable, such as in the name Emily (Pitcher, Mesoudi and McElligott 2). The top six female names for 2013 all ended with the fairly common “a” ending for girls (producing the [ə] sound) with names such as Sophia, Emma and Olivia (“Top Ten Baby Names for 2013). Female names are also more likely to end with from the y/ie spelling that yields the [i] sound. Actually, as a whole, female names tend to contain this [i] sound (Cutler, McQueen and Robinson 480). The [i] sound is also found in mostly feminized nicknames, which is discussed more below. Feminine names also tend to be longer than male names, containing fewer monosyllabic names and instead having names that can contain as many as five syllables, such as Alexandria (Cutler, McQueen and Robinson 475). This perhaps suggests a desire for female names to be more intricate and beautiful in a way that male names may not require.

By comparison, male names do not appear to have such strict trends in sounds, like the “a” in the girls’ names. The main consistencies in male-sounding names are the strong vowel sounds and the shorter length, often being monosyllabic. However, many male names have common, long-lasting sources, not being manipulated and fashioned into new names as frequently as female names. Many of the most popular male names from 2013 have Biblical ties, such as Noah, Jacob and Daniel (“Top Ten Baby Names for 2013”). Biblical names as a trend are almost forced to be gendered, however, based on the overwhelming number of male characters in the Bible compared to female characters. In contrast to female names, male names have a large-sounding vowel phoneme in the stressed syllable of the name (Pitcher, Mesoudi and McElligott 2). Male names are frequently compared structurally to common nouns, lacking the elaboration of a feminine name (Hough 1). It is also more common for a male to bear a surname as his personal name than for a female to do the same (Hough 7).

Names obviously change over time in terms of popularity, or even in terms of usage. Fairly frequently, female names are created by adding suffixes to traditionally male names, such as Georgina or Maxine (Cutler, McQueen and Robinson 476). This contributes to the trend where female names are longer than male names, such as how Georgina adds two extra syllables to George. This is not true in the reverse, however; strictly female names simply cannot be altered to form male names (Cutler, McQueen and Robinson 480). In a few instances, names can become completely unisex, used almost equally in either gender, but this appears to be rare and often a temporary state. Though mindsets appear to be shifting to accommodate more individuals who do not fit into the gender binary, this binary is still very real and has a heavy influence on culture, particularly on American culture. There are names that hover in the middle-ground sections of male/female names, but it still ultimately comes down to the perception of the individual hearing the name, and the current culture still presents strict binaries for everything to be classified into.

Though the study conducted by Benjamin Pitcher, Alex Mesoudi and Alan McElligott suggest that strong-sounding names are considered more masculine because of their ties to size of an individual, it does not seem far-fetched that the strength itself is what makes those names appealing. If this is to be the case, the process of taking male names and adopting them as unisex may be reflective of females claiming a portion of this strength that they previously did not have access to. However, Stanley Lieberson, Susan Dumais and Shyon Baumann’s research suggests a different theory in gender adoption; as parents seek to break gender barriers with androgynous names, these names will eventually be forced into gendered categories as they become more popular. A parent is likely to have encountered a name before bestowing it on their child, regardless of if it was gendered or androgynous. Even if parents consistently give their children androgynous names, these names will inevitably end up used more commonly for one gender or another, and that gender will ultimately claim that name (Lieberson, Dumais and Baumann 1255). Taylor is one of the more well-known and current unisex names, but the fame of singer Taylor Swift will likely claim Taylor as a generally female name in the future.

Many unisex names actually come from diminutive forms, from nicknames. Most names have the potential to be broken down into a single syllable, which breaks gender boundaries in many instances (Cutler, McQueen and Robinson 478). Both Samuel and Samantha can be broken down into Sam, which crosses the gender neutrality mentioned earlier. Particularly long names might yield two-syllable nicknames, but these are most frequently regarded as feminine, again contributing to the length argument. Both a Christopher and a Christina could go by Chris, but a person going by Chrissie sounds distinctly more feminine (Culter, McQueen and Robinson 478). This is not a perfect formula, however, because both a Nicolas and a Nichole might go by Nicky or Nicki (sounding the same and only differentiated by spelling) but this nickname does not sound specifically either masculine or feminine. Spelling itself is an entire area used to separate names into gender binaries. What is it about Danny that looks more masculine than Dani? It cannot be the length theory, in this case, since Danny is longer, but the name Dani simply looks more delicate, more slender, and ultimately, more feminine.

The human brain loves to categorize things, and tends to operate in the form of binaries with little room in the middle of each spectrum. If this is not good, it must be bad. If this is not happy, it must be sad. In the case of names, if a name does not represent a male, it must represent a female. If a name is solid and strong, it belongs to a man; if it is delicate and weaker, it must belong to a woman. Though these thoughts and binaries do not reflect the actual individualities of a name-bearer at all, they are components of a larger system that allows the human being to continue categorizing what it hears into two distinct boxes. The androgynous names that surface to overtake these binaries do not often stick around for very long before they, too, fall victim to these practices and standards.


    Cutler, Anne, James McQueen and Ken Robinson. “Elizabeth and John: Sound Patterns of Men’s and Women’s Names.” J. Linguistics 26 (1990): 471-82. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 November 2014.

    Hough, Carole. “Towards and Explanation of Phonetic Differentiation in Masculine and Feminine Personal Names.” J. Linguistics 36.1 (2000): 1-11. JStor. Web. 20 November 2014.

    Lieberson, Stanley, Susan Dumais, Shyon Baumann. “The Instability of Androgynous Names: The Symbolic Maintenance of Gender Boundaries.” American Journal of Sociology 105.5 (2000): 1249-87. JStor. Web. 20 November 2014.

    Pitcher, Benjamin J., Alex Mesoudi, Alan G. McElligott. “Sex-Based Sound Symbolism in English-Language First Names.” PLoS ONE Jun. 2013: 1-6. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 November 2014.

    “Top 10 Baby Names for 2013.” Social Security. USA Social Security Administration, n.d. Web. 27 November 2014.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
This entry was posted in Language. Bookmark the permalink.