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Why Have Baby Names Become Increasingly Female-Sounding?

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)

 

+2

 

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

 

(Caroline, Emily)

 

+1

 

If the name has one syllable (John, Mitch)

 

-1

 

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)

 

-2

 

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

 

+2

 

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

 

+1

 

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

 

(Joseph, James)

 

-1

 

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

 

-2

 

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
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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