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Why Have Baby Names Become Increasingly Female-Sounding?

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There are girls’ names, and there are boys’ names. Yes, there are also some names, like Pat, Chris, and Casey, that can go either way, and yes, there are girls named James, and boys named Sue, but overwhelmingly, names indicate gender. We assume Elizabeth is a girl, and Thomas is a boy. How do we know? Those name/gender pairings match our experience. We’ve learned them that way. This is not necessarily interesting. What is interesting is that we also make assumptions about names we’ve never heard before. Do you think Sturvelt is a girl or a boy? What about Wurshenia?

Going by sound alone, a name can seem male or female, but why? What aspects of the sound are we noticing in making this distinction? Syllable structure, individual sounds, and their position within the word all play a role. But the interaction between these cues can be complicated. Fortunately, there is a way to boil it all down to a single number. In a 1995 paper, Herbert Barry and Aylene Harper described a method for calculating what they call the “phonetic gender score” of a name. 

Here’s how to get your phonetic gender score:

If the accent is on the second or later syllable (Elizabeth, Wurshenia)




If the accent is on the first of three or more syllables


(Caroline, Emily)




If the name has one syllable (John, Mitch)




If the accent is on the first of two syllables and the name has six or more phonemes. (Phonemes are individual speech sounds and don’t always match up with spelling. ‘Th,’ and ‘ch’ are single phonemes. ‘Ew’ is one phoneme in Andrew.)


(Robert, Edward, Storvelt)




If the last phoneme is an unstressed schwa-like (‘uh’ or ‘ah’) sound (Ella, Hannah)




If the last phoneme is any other vowel (Melanie, Audrey)




If the last phoneme is a s, z, f, v, th, ch, zh, or dzh (last sound of George)


(Joseph, James)




If the last phoneme is a stop consonant (p, b, t, d, k, or g) (Jacob, Frederick)




It’s important to keep in mind that the scoring is not based on spelling, but sound. “Joseph” ends in an ‘f’ phoneme. “Audrey” ends in an ‘ee’ vowel. Many common names will get a neutral score of 0, especially 2 syllable names with stress on the first syllable that end in n, m, l, or r (Jaden, Liam, Taylor, Helen). 

As you can probably tell from the examples given, the positive values associate with aspects more common in female names, and negative values with aspects of male names. A very female name (e.g., Sophia) scores a 4. A very male name (e.g., Edward) scores a -4. But names of either gender can have any of these features. Anthony gets a +1 for having 3 syllables and a +1 for ending in a vowel. Faith gets a -1 for being one syllable and a -1 for ending with a th. According to this scoring system, Scarlett has a very male profile and Jeremiah has a very female profile. The phonetic gender score may not make the right prediction about every name, but it captures a general pattern that we seem to be psychologically attuned to. We’ve absorbed the pattern without realizing it, and we use it to make judgments about unfamiliar names.

When Barry and Harper used their phonetic gender score to compare groups of names from 1960 and 1990, they found that the average score for the most popular baby names had increased over time for both girls and boys. In other words, names for both sexes had gotten more female in their sound characteristics. I was curious about whether this trend had continued since 1990 and how it looked in a larger time frame. So I ran some numbers. 

I calculated the phonetic gender score for the top 100 boy and top 100 girl names in the United States for the years 1880 (the first year of record-keeping), 1950, 1990, and 2013. As you can see from the chart, boys' and girls' names in every year score significantly differently from each other, meaning that the phonetic gender score is a reliable indicator of name gender. The chart also shows little change in scores for the first 70 years of recordkeeping, with a slight increase in feminine characteristics for girls’ names and for masculine characteristics for boys’ names. After 1950, both girls’ and boys’ names begin a marked rise in score and the rise continues after 1990. Both boys’ and girls’ names are taking on more feminine phonetic characteristics.

What accounts for the change? Looking at the tallies for each criterion of the phonetic gender score, a few trends emerge. For both boys and girls, there has been a move away from one-syllable names. (Some that were popular in 1950 that are no longer on the list: Bruce, Earl, Roy, Carl, Joyce, Joan, Gail, Rose.) This makes the average score for both rise. Another factor is a recent trend in biblical names for boys like Elijah, Isiah, Jeremiah, Josiah, and Joshua. These multisyllabic names with unstressed first syllables and schwa-like vowels on the end have a feminine profile according to the score criteria. In 1880, only one boys’ name in the top 100 ended in schwa (Ira). In 1950, none did. This year there are six, including the number one name on the list, Noah.

Another change is a drop in the number of boys’ names that end in stop consonants and consonant clusters. Names that were once popular—like Harold, Howard, Leonard, Clifford, and Albert—have gone out of style. This year Robert is the only name of that type to make the top 100 (and the only name to score a -4)

For girls’ names, besides the drop in one-syllable names, an increase in vowel endings for the top hundred names seems to be the primary cause of the overall score rise. Half the girls’ names ended in a vowel sound in 1950. For 2013, 68 of them do.

The general pattern of increasing phonetic gender score holds whether you look at the top 100, 50, 20, or even just the top 10 names, but the chart for the top 10 reveals an interesting possible explanation for what might be going on here. 

The top 10 names will account for a large percentage of the names given in any particular year (though the top 10 accounts for less of a percentage than it used to). This chart shows a sharp increase in score for boys' names between 1950 and 1990. After that the change levels off somewhat. Girls’ names then seem to respond to that change with a change of their own, one that enhances the difference between the name groups. In simple terms, boys’ names became more like girls’ names so people started making girls’ names girlier. Naming practices change over the years, but there is a general tendency to maintain gender distinctions. If the names get too similar to each other, adjustments will be made toward gender polarization.

There is nothing intrinsically masculine or feminine about any particular phonetic characteristic. We experience sound properties as masculine or feminine because they are implicitly represented that way in the names we learn. Boys’ names did not actually become more feminine. Boys’ names changed. Howard/Albert/Clifford type names went out of style, making the characteristics they exhibited (stop consonant endings, more than 6 phonemes) a less reliable cue for maleness. Girls’ names changed in order to maintain the gender distinction.

The overarching drive in naming practices over time seems not to be toward giving names pre-determined masculine or feminine properties, but toward keeping them different.

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Big Questions
If Beer and Bread Use Almost the Exact Same Ingredients, Why Isn't Bread Alcoholic?
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If beer and bread use almost the exact same ingredients (minus hops) why isn't bread alcoholic?

Josh Velson:

All yeast breads contain some amount of alcohol. Have you ever smelled a rising loaf of bread or, better yet, smelled the air underneath dough that has been covered while rising? It smells really boozy. And that sweet smell that fresh-baked bread has under the yeast and nutty Maillard reaction notes? Alcohol.

However, during the baking process, most of the alcohol in the dough evaporates into the atmosphere. This is basically the same thing that happens to much of the water in the dough as well. And it’s long been known that bread contains residual alcohol—up to 1.9 percent of it. In the 1920s, the American Chemical Society even had a set of experimenters report on it.

Anecdotally, I’ve also accidentally made really boozy bread by letting a white bread dough rise for too long. The end result was that not enough of the alcohol boiled off, and the darned thing tasted like alcohol. You can also taste alcohol in the doughy bits of underbaked white bread, which I categorically do not recommend you try making.

Putting on my industrial biochemistry hat here, many [people] claim that alcohol is only the product of a “starvation process” on yeast once they run out of oxygen. That’s wrong.

The most common brewers and bread yeasts, of the Saccharomyces genus (and some of the Brettanomyces genus, also used to produce beer), will produce alcohol in both a beer wort
and in bread dough immediately, regardless of aeration. This is actually a surprising result, as it runs counter to what is most efficient for the cell (and, incidentally, the simplistic version of yeast biology that is often taught to home brewers). The expectation would be that the cell would perform aerobic respiration (full conversion of sugar and oxygen to carbon dioxide and water) until oxygen runs out, and only then revert to alcoholic fermentation, which runs without oxygen but produces less energy.

Instead, if a Saccharomyces yeast finds itself in a high-sugar environment, regardless of the presence of air it will start producing ethanol, shunting sugar into the anaerobic respiration pathway while still running the aerobic process in parallel. This phenomenon is known as the Crabtree effect, and is speculated to be an adaptation to suppress competing organisms
in the high-sugar environment because ethanol has antiseptic properties that yeasts are tolerant to but competitors are not. It’s a quirk of Saccharomyces biology that you basically only learn about if you spent a long time doing way too much yeast cell culture … like me.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?
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Mercury passing the Sun.

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the third time this year on Sunday, August 13 (or August 12, depending on where you live). But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."


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