A couple of weeks ago, Kathleen learned that her twenty-something friend and coworker did not know the state capitals. The friend is intelligent, but she had never learned this basic of American geography--something that we baby boomers had to memorize.
So Kathleen decided to try to teach her. She did this by putting the capitals into categories: religious--St. Paul, Sacramento, Santa Fe, Salem, Concord, Providence; Native American--Tallahassee, Oklahoma City, Topeka, Cheyenne, Honolulu (maybe Native Hawaiian for the last); French--Des Moines, Baton Rouge, Boise, Montpelier, Pierre. There was a big category of English place names, such as Boston, Richmond, and Dover. Little Rock and Salt Lake City locate the city with a natural feature. A few, such as Phoenix and Bismarck were one of a class (Mythological Creatures and Iron Chancellors?).
But the cleverest category she came up with was women’s names. One is stretching it--Juneau is pronounced the same as Juno, but was actually named after a prospector named Joe Juneau. But the categories are mnemonic, not historical. Most of the others are pretty obvious--Augusta, Atlanta, Helena, Olympia. Annapolis, named for Anne Arundel, is also on the list. And one more that I wouldn’t have put in the class: Madison. In the past twenty years or so, the surname of our fourth president has become a popular girls’ name. And as a mnemonic, it worked.
Which is a way to get into the tendency of men’s names morphing into women’s names. And after they do, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever be used for boys again. Most of these gender-changing names seem to fall into certain patterns. When men’s names share a traditionally feminine ending, they a seem to be fair game. Names ending in the latter a, such as Sasha, Dana, and Elisha have moved into the feminine column, at least in the United States. Judith (Hebrew in origin) and Edith (Anglo-Saxon), have made Meredith (Welsh) an acceptable girls’ name. Then there are the many-ley/ly names: Shirley, Beverly, Ashley, Kimberly, etc. (Somehow, Bradley has escaped feminization.) At one time, Lesley was a girls’ name, while Leslie was for boys. But in the States, it’s almost exclusively a girls’ name, whatever the spelling. Similarly, Tracy/Tracey and Stacy/Stacey are almost exclusively girls’ names in the USA.
Then there’s the “sounds the same” category. There are quite a few young women named
Aubrey today. I suspect it became a girls’ name because it sounds like Audrey.
A lot of surnames--Kelly, Taylor, and Courtney, for example, have become girl's names. I’m not sure why Kelly is a common girls’ name, while Murphy, despite the television program Murphy Brown, isn’t. Whether Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol will start a trend for that name, I don’t know. I hope not. Ditto for her boys’ names, Track and Trig.
When names make the transition, from masculine to feminine (I don't know any that have gone the other way), they usually do so completely. But Sidney, which shows up as a girl’s name as early as 1901, in Frank Norris’s novel, The Octopus, and Jordan, which is the name of a major female character in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1922), are still used for both men and women.
And then there’s Madison. According to Wikipedia, it started with the 1984 movie Splash, in which Daryl Hannah plays a mermaid who takes the name Madison from the avenue in New York. But I suspect it wouldn’t have caught on if the nickname Maddie hadn’t been popular as a result of Maddie Hayes, the character played by Cybil Shepherd on the TV series, Moonlighting. Madeleine (or even Madolyn, the spelling of the character's name) is currently out of fashion, so it’s Madison to the rescue.