Friday, January 02, 2009

The Gender Migration of Names

Noticing my son's playmates and classmates, the following thought occurs to me: Didn't Sidney used to be a man's name? And August? And Loren?

Being an empirically-minded philosopher (and one with a little time away from classes), I had to check. I went to the U.S. Social Security Administration's baby names site and I looked up the 1000 most popular boy and girl baby names for 1900 and for 2000. August, to my surprise, didn't rate among the top 1000 girls' names (though I know two young Augusts, both girls), but Sidney and Loren both made the gender switch. In 1900, Sidney was #108 among boy names and #777 among girls. By 2000, the ratio had flipped to #594 for boys and #264 for girls. Same with Sydney: In 1900 #730 among boys, unranked among girls; in 2000, unranked among boys and a startling #23 among girls. Loren/Lauren pulled the same trick: In 1900, #342 and #943 for boys, unranked for girls; in 2000, #704 and #11 for girls, unranked for boys.

In other words, Loren/Lauren and Sidney/Sydney went from being modestly popular boys' names to being leading girls' names. But does it ever go the other way around? Do girls' names ever become boys' names? I wouldn't think so: Calling a girl "Joe" (or "Jo") or "Jack" ("Jaq") is cute; calling a boy "Anna" or "Mary" doesn't have quite the same effect. In fact, it might be perceived as something like a lifetime curse.

So I ran a few analyses. In the SSA lists, I found 26 names that switched from masculine in 1900 to feminine in 2000 and 4 that went the other way. (That's p < .0001 on the binomial test, by the way, if you want the statistics.) Here they are:

Male to Female:
(apologies for the small reproduction: click to enlarge)As is evident from this list, 5 of the top 25 girls' names in 2000 (Madison, Taylor, Lauren, Sydney, Morgan) were boys' names in 1900! The gender migration of girls' names to boys' names looks very different.These seem to be aberrations, not a trend. Two appear to be due to an increasing acceptability of "-ie" and not just "-y" as a proper spelling of the long-e suffix for male names. The other two are due to the precipitous decline of "Jean" and "Joan" as girls' names, coupled presumably with the retention of those names as foreign equivalents of the durably and internationally popular boys' name "John". None ranks among the top 500 boys' names.

I can't resist concluding with the thought that if trends continue, someday every Tom, Dick, and Harry will be a girl.


  1. Extremely interesting...I suppose nothing better indicates which sex gets more respect than the desirability of that sex's flavor in one's given name. In that sense this little study is chilling.

  2. A sociological pattern that must have a hidden cause worthy of investigation.

    I don´t know if this is too much speculation but i go ahead.

    Nowadays, that the DSM V is on the horizon with a special workgroup focusing on gender identity disorders (and gender dysphoria)in children, this pattern could be a triggering factor to dissatisfaction with one sex, or at least a possible cause of distress if a given name leads to victimization, stigma...

  3. There are some nice tools here for investigating these trends. There's definitely a male-to-female name drift phenomenon, but the details are complicated. "Madison", for example, was at its peak among boys in the late nineteenth century, at a rate of about 100 per million. It then slowly died out among boys, dropping out of the top 1000 by 1950. It then surged suddenly upward in the 1990s, peaking at about 50 per million. "Madison" as a girls' name first shows up n the 1970's, and then shoots upward in the late 1980's, peaking a few years ago at about 5000 per million. So: a rather low-frequency boys' name gradually disappeared, and then about 40 years later it reappeared as both a boys' and a girls' name, but vastly more popular as a girls' than as a boys'.

    The re-emergence of "Madison" as a girls' name starts in Utah, and then shows up in Arkansas. It then spreads to the Pacific northwest and to the south, and then rampages across the whole country. It now looks like it's starting to settle in as a predominately southern name.

  4. Thanks for the great link, Josh! Yes, it does look more complex when you get into the details.

    The degenderization of names probably involves more than just dropping off the top-1000 list since we certainly think of formerly popular names as gendered, even if new babies aren't given those names (like my wife's name "Pauline" -- very popular a hundred years ago but now out of the top 1000).

    Stephen, I'm inclined to agree with your analysis.

    Anibal, I agree it would be interesting to see whether gender dysphoria is more common in children whose parentally-given names are more or less strongly gendered.

  5. Stanley Lieberson has a sociological approach toward names and Pinker latest book a chapter on the logic of names (there is where i´ve learned about the work of Lieberson)

  6. Woah, great work.

    Having a gender ambiguous name, I wonder if a study into the change of boy:girl ratio of such names over time would be as interesting.

  7. More interesting is the fact that a fully migrated M->F name is dropped like a hot potato for boys. Nobody ever calls their boys Alexis, Tracy or Ashley any more. So the "dropping off" of the name is confounded by the adoption.

  8. This always happend, in the worse cases I hear many people with ridiculos names and in latin america people from, who live from agriculture a stuff like that are ignorant mix english names with spanish names and names from movies or characters.

  9. I was wondering if anyone could offer me some insight. I am a female, now age54. My given name is Shawn. My entire life I have been called anything except by my name. Men, women, young, old, refuse to call me Shawn. I have always been given a nickname or some have just attached my middle initial and made a new name for me. My siblings have always called me Shawn J. (my middle name is Jai, pronounced Jay) I have asked why and they either don't realize they are doing it, or they just shrug it off and continue. I can't understand it, other than they are just having a hard time with a female having a male's name, but my sister Sydney doesn't have this problem at all. any ideas?

  10. Fascinating. The fact that it is O.K. and even admirable for females to do "Male" things and not the other way around is reflected not only in names. Women can wear pants, men are seen as odd if they wear dresses; Women working in traditionally male dominated fields are considered enterprising and career-oriented, while men who work in traditionally female jobs are often suspected of closeted homosexuality.

  11. One of the Freakanomics books talks about name migration from a socioeconomic standpoint. They show how new names usually originate among the higher classes, and then become popular in the lower classes (I'm using class here in purely economic terms).

    I wonder where the tipping point is that a name migration from one gender to the other becomes accepted by society at large? I'm betting the first girl ever named "Tracy" probably received some odd reactions.

    It would also be interesting to see if migrations start in a specific area (by geography, economic status, culture, ethnicity, etc) and then spread out - or if they start in multiple places at once.

    Finally, it would be interesting to see all of the above data as it relates to NEW names, and if the behavior patterns are similar or not.