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Masculine Names, Feminine Names, and Unisex Names
First, a little explanation may be in order. Gender, as it is understood in linguistics, is little more than a classifying tool, a way in which to arrange certain words. In Spanish, for example, the word árbol (tree) carries a masculine gender, and all adjectives and certain verbs must be altered to agree with masculinity. Sometimes identifying gender is easy. Hombre (man) is masculine while mujer (woman) is feminine. This makes perfect sense. Sometimes, though, the choice seems arbitrary and weird. Why, for instance, are cabeza (head) and casa (house) feminine while lapiz (pencil) and lago (lake) are masculine?
For English speakers who have not studied other languages, gender is a bizarre concept. English, the modern language, is well known for its lack of gender. Very few words can be considered deliberately masculine, or specifically feminine. We still do have a few distinctions, especially when words deal with people or animals (such actor/actress, bull/cow, boy/girl, rooster/hen, etc.) but certainly not everyday words like tree, house, yellow, tall, or desk.
Names, however, are a different story. Most names do carry an implied gender. William is, without doubt, a masculine name and Teresa is definitely a feminine name. Most names are usually either given to a boy, or to a girl. A few names can be given to either sex.
One of the noticeable trends of naming in the United States is the rise of unisex names, names that are given to both boys and girls indiscriminately. However, this is not a new trend. Indeed, English-speaking parents have been playing around with the concept of masculine names versus feminine names for a very long time.
The Middle Ages
Today, names are not translated out of their native language. John White stays John White, even if he moves to France. He does not change his name to Jean Blanc. He does not become Juan Blanco in Spain. He stays John White. However, this was not always the case. Until modern times a name was treated as a specialized word, as part of a language, and could be freely translated from its original language to another. The man English speakers know as John Cabot was actually Giovanni Cabato, and Christopher Columbus was born as Cristoforo Columbo in Italy, and called Cristobal Colon in Spain.
Most children in medieval Europe were named after saints, popes, and other figures of Christianity. The great bulk of these saints were of Greek or Latin origin and bore Greek or Latin names. So, when the Latin names of saints and martyrs were given to English children, the names were translated out of Latin (a language which has gender specific endings) and into English (where they lost their gender endings).
Say our medieval Englishman, John White, names his son Patrick, after the famous saint. In English, the Latin Patricus became Patric, or Patrick (losing the masculine ius). Patrick White is born.
But suppose John has a daughter instead. Being a devout man he still wishes to name his child after the great St. Patrick. In Latin, Patricus is a male name; it has a masculine us ending. To turn it feminine, the masculine ending us is turned to an ia, becoming Patricia. The Latin Patricia is translated to English, losing its Latinate, feminine ia.
The girl is also called Patrick White.
Thats right, in the medieval England Patrick was a unisex names. Other non-gender-specific names of the medieval England include:
Although these names never became popular for girls, they were not uncommon at all. So what happened? These names are all undoubtedly masculine names now. What changed? The answer: education.
French vs. English, Round One
Again, in the Middle Ages education was reserved for the nobility, and both nobility and education meant French. For in 1066 England was conquered by William the Conqueror (also called William the Bastard), a duke from Normandy, France. He brought his own nobles and retainers with him, rewarding his faithful followers by giving them great English estates. For the next few hundred years, the upper crust spoke Norman French, while their subjects spoke variations of Anglo-Saxon (Old English). This lasted for several hundred years until, gradually, the two languages merged to form Middle English. But even afterwards, until the 19th century, French language represented culture, refinement, and wealth.
The French language is derived from the Latin language, and both carry gender distinctions. In French, femininity is indicated not by an a but by an e ending. Masculinity is indicated by not having an e ending. Thus do we get Daniel (masculine) and Danielle (feminine); Denis (masculine) and Denise (feminine); Gabriel (masculine) and Gabrielle (feminine), etc. Thus it is through French-speaking English nobles that we get one of the earliest distinctions of femininity and masculinity in names.
For example, take the French masculine name Jehan (modern Jean), and an e to get the feminine Jehane. Take to England and they eventually become the John/Jane pair. The more educated a man was, the more likely he was to speak French and give his children French-influenced names.
The Age of Invention,
Or, Too Much Education
But things really picked up in the 18th century. It was during that time that many English scholars became enamored with ancient Greece and Rome. Well-meaning grammarians, convinced that Latin was the perfect language, picked up many of that languages grammatical idiosyncrasies and tried to apply them to English. These are the people to blame for our rules against split infinitives and double negatives. Their affection for ancient languages also affected naming habits.
Daughters of educated parents were no longer given the English translation of Latin names, but the actual Latin names themselves. Cecily gave way to Cecilia, Ann to Anna, Mary to Maria. Most importantly, by about the 17th century, girls were no longer named Patrick, Julian, Philip, or Gabriel, but the Latin Patricia, Juliana or Julia, Philippa, and Gabriella.
James, Alexander, Reynold, and Simon, became almost excessively masculine.
The Scotch, influenced by the French feminine ine ending, created many feminine forms by tacking an ina to popular masculine forms. They coined many unwieldy feminine names. Combinations like Adamina, Alexina, Davidina (Davina), Jamesina, Kenina, Malcolmina, and Williamina have all been noted.
Later (especially in the 19th century), this idea spread to the rest of the English-world and many faux-Latin names were created out by tacking an a or an ina onto popular masculine Germanic names. Thus Roberta, Alberta, and Edwina were created. Much more rarely, we see this phenomenon attached to old, Biblical Hebrew names and the occasional Nathania, Jonatha, or Matthea was born. Even Irish Gaelic like Brian, Fion, and Sean names have spawned Brianna, Fiona, and Shauna.
It was in the late 19th early 20th century that another trend appeared (especially in the American South). This was the practice of giving masculine diminutives to girls. Names like Johnnie, Willie, Frankie, Charlie, Billie, Robin, Jimmie, Jamie, Artie, Georgie, Eddie, Bobbie, Sammie, Robbie all suitable for little boys were now given as first names for girls.
Other times, a masculine diminutive is feminized by switching an I for a Y. Robyn, Bobbi, Jerri, and Terri are rarely mistaken as masculine. Robin, Bobby, Jerry, and Terry can go either way.
The 20th Century
Today we see masculine names like Alexis (introduced by a prime-time soap opera), or Ariel (like Madison, a famous movie mermaid), are often given to girls. However, John, William, George, and Henry are not. Most traditional male names too old, too well-established to make good girls names. Woe be to that unfortunate little boy named Sue.
But modern names like surnames-as-first-names, or made-up names, names which date from the 19th century and beyond, are fair game. It has become quite trendy to give children (especially girls) names that are not traditionally gender-specific. What happened this time? The causes are many.
In the mid-20th century, many well-meaning feminists decided that gender in words was wrong. These are the people to blame for bland, unwieldy creations like chairperson, congressperson, postal worker, etc. This naturally led to the belief that gender in names is also wrong, or at least unnecessary. This belief, coupled (and perhaps overshadowed) by a fanatic pursuit of the unusual is one of the causes of a new revolution, the unisex name revolution.
Thus Addison, Ansley, Ashley, Ashton, Bailey, Beverly, Cameron, Carson, Cassidy, Courtney, Delaney, Hailey, Harley, Hayden, Kelley, Kelsey, Kennedy, Kayley, Lindsey, Madison, Mackenzie, Peyton, Presley, Quinn, Reagan, Riley, Sage, Scarlett, Shelby, Taylor, Tyler, Whitney and yes, even Ryan and Hunter are now often given to little girls.
So it seems weve come full circle, from no gender to high gender and back again. The name Jordan, for example, began as a name for both boys and girls (when returning Crusaders saved tiny vials of water from the River Jordan in which to baptize their offspring). Gradually, it came to be known as purely male, and now is again given to both sexes.
(Although isnt it interesting to note that the ultra-feminine names of the Victorian era are also coming back into fashion; Daisy, Ruby, Lily, and Ella, were looking at you!)
But in case the reader is interested, the following is a list of feminized masculine names found at Edgars Name Pages:
Freda (Fred, Frederick)
Iva (Ivo, Ivor)
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