Rido/Shutterstock
Source: Rido/Shutterstock

When your parents chose your name, they probably thought it was a private personal decision. New research indicates, however, that they were probably more influenced by popular opinion than they realized. (For example, Thomas, Brendon, and Cameron topped United States popularity charts in 2012, while Sophia, Lily, and Victoria were popular girl names.)

Were you actually named by a social trend (or did you go with the crowd when you named your own child)? It would seem so, and the decision could have altered your whole life. 

British and Australian researchers have discovered a surprising difference between popular boy and girl names. The team examined a 10-year data set of the most popular British, American, and Australian baby names, and found that, in general, British boys' names were significantly more likely to contain larger-sounding phonemes, while female names contain significantly smaller-sounding phonemes. (Further research is required to discover whether this also applies to first names in other languages.)

Compare names such as Jacob and Lily. Although possessing the same number of syllables, Jacob sounds larger than Lily because the “a” and “o” vowels sound larger than the “i” as well as the “e” vowels. For instance, the "e" in the boy's name Eli is longer than the "e" in the popular girl's name Emily. And so the phonemes in boys' names were found to be typically longer than those in girls' names. 

According to the researchers, this baby-naming phenomenon has to do with sexual dimorphism, the anatomical difference between males and females. In humans, as in many other animal species, males are generally larger than females. Larger male size is correlated to benefits; tall men are generally considered more desirable as mates, have more children, and earn higher salaries. (They are even more likely to become president!) Conversely, shorter females are generally deemed more attractive, and, correspondingly, have more children.

This size-sex difference may affect the language we use, as sound symbolism may contribute to baby-name preferences: For example, larger sounding boy names such as Joshua and Nicholas may reflect a parental desire to have larger, more masculine sons. Further, smaller-sounding girl names such as Melanie and Kylie may reflect a hope to have more feminine daughters.

Researchers still need to investigate whether names shape personality and, if so, how much. Are women named Lily typically more feminine than those named Allison? Are Camerons more boyish than Henrys? And are these sex-stereotyped names indeed a predictor of social and career success? Are Emilys more popular than Taylors? Do Jacobs have more children than Jacks? 

This awaits investigation. 

Pitcher BJ, Mesoudi A, McElligott AG (2013) Sex-Biased Sound Symbolism in English-Language First Names. PLoS ONE 8(6): e64825. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.

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