Friday, October 17, 2008

Madison and the Gender Migration of Names

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.

11 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Terry is another one like this. I didn't know Sasha was ever a man's name. But yeah, I knew Dana was. So far, Charles seems to be safe.

Virtual Voyage said...

Food for thought, Steve. Vivienne is another one that's morphed here.

Crockhead said...

Very interesting. I had a math teacher in high school, a male, whose name was Carol. I think Carol used to be fairly common as a man's name, although I haven't researched it. I wonder when it morphed into a woman's name. Also, I have a brother-in-law, born in 1946, whose name is Lynn Dale (first and middle names.) I wonder when Lynn came to be thought of as a predominatly female name and Dale as a predominantly male name.

steve said...

Charles--Sasha's Russian, a diminutive of Alexander. Charles is probably safe because there are so many feminine versions of the name--Charlene, Charlotte, Charla, etc.

Julie--I think Vivienne was the feminine form of Vivian. But then, Vivian is not only a woman's name here, but an older woman's name. I remember being surprised when I found out Evelyn Waugh was a man.

Crockhead (Not Amishlaw anymore?)--Maybe Charles isn't safe, as Charles is the French form of Carol, as in the Carolingian Era. Because Carol and Carole are pronounced the same, people started dropping the final e in the girls' name.

Dale Evans certainly gave a boost to the name for girls, but as you say, it's mainly a masculine name now.

twoblueday said...

I wonder whether knowing the name of the capitol of any given state will ever be useful in anyone's life.

Or knowing the name of the UK prime minister.

Ropi said...

Very interesting post and it reminds me to my geographical weaknesses. I would be very proud if a town was named after me but this won't happen. I guess Augusta was named after Emperor Augustus or Empress Livia (Augusta).

steve said...

Gerry--I think a basic knowledge of geography--especially of one's own country--is something important. It may not be obviously practical, but it can help in secondary ways. learning the state capitols is a tool for learning geography.

Ropi--A quick check of Wikipedia shows that the city was named for Augusta Dearborn, daughter of Henry Dearborn, who was a t one time U.S. Marshal for the District of Maine. Of course Roman title was the ultimate origin of the name.

Elizabeth said...

Clever post and made me think of arguing with my husband over names for our children. He is Swiss and wanted Caspar. I said, that's the name of a ghost, a friendly one, but still...

Ropi said...

Well I made my conclosion from Augsburg (Germany) because it used to be Augustus Treverorum. Well, I really suck at Geography so I forgive to her coworkers. Here we also have counties (megye) and we had to learn them but in Hungary counties have no great importance. To be honest I am not sure I could list all with their capitals.

steve said...

Elizabeth--Caspar wouldn't have been a good idea in the States. A lot more people know about the friendly ghost than the traditional names for the Magi. Probably better than Balthasar or Melchior, though.

Ropi--It was a good guess. I wouldn't expect you to know the U.S. state capitals, much less the origin of the capital of Maine (I had to look that up). I just lisened to a course on CD about the Roman Empire, and learned that the emperors were formally known as Augustus, while the emperor-designate was called Caesar. Yet we have the German Kaiser and the Russian Tsar--taken from Caesar, not Augustus.

Ropi said...

Sorry Augustus Treverorum is not Augsburg but Trier.