Fraternal Twins

Names communicate a lot of information, which is subject to both interpretation and misinterpretation. This discussion of inferences about gender from people's names concludes the five part series What Do Names Tell Us? (The first four parts dealt with popular names, last names, race and religion, and social class.)

(From time to time, Looking in the Cultural Mirror deals with broad topics that require multiple posts--for example, the six part series on The Census and Race [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].)


My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn't leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me "Sue."
--Johnny Cash, A Boy Named Sue

Among the bits of information communicated by names, one of the most significant is whether a person is male or female. Because of gender inequality, a boy with a girl's name is likely to run into more trouble than a girl with a boy's name--just as sissies are mistreated more than tomboys. The principle here is that it is less socially acceptable for a male to be associated with the less powerful and prestigious female role than vice versa.

Some societies (e.g., Germany) insist that a baby's name clearly identify it as a boy or a girl. This creates problems for some children born to immigrants (e.g., Turks). Their unfamiliar names may identify the gender clearly in the parents' first language but not convey that information in the new country.

In the United States, a common British American practice is to use a family name as a first name, and this custom also introduces gender ambiguity. The practice has spread, and family names are commonly found among children's names. In 2009, Avery was the 32nd most common girl's name and Bailey was number 85, while for boys Carter was 50 and Cameron was 59. Presidents' names often show up--Madison is the seventh most common name given to girls--but for some reason I've never run across a female Jefferson.

There have always been some gender-ambiguous given names, though which names they are has varied over time. In 2009 Jordan and Jaden were two popular ones: for boys, Jayden (8), Jaden (101), Jordan (45); and for girls, Jordan (150), Jaden (538). In contrast, Leslie (160) and Stacy (825) now show up among the 1,000 most common names only for girls.

Some families name a son for his father, and continue the practice through the generations, with a Jr., III, IV, and so on, setting up a McDynasty. There is no parallel practice for daughters (except for royalty--e.g., Queen Elizabeth II). As moves toward gender equality increase, it will be interesting to see whether women will adopt the practice for their daughters, or whether the practice for sons will die out.

Image source:
Fraternal twins

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