Arika Okrent's column at mental_floss


  1. Darkwhite said,

    June 13, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

    I worked my way through the column on baby names. The author gives the phonetic gender score system a lot more credit than it deserves. The sensible conclusion is that something circumstantial with little bearing on the masculine-feminine qualities of names has become more common, and influences scores because the system is flawed – not that names have overall become more feminine, and definitely not that female names have changed as a response to male names taking on more feminine qualities.

    From near the end: "There is nothing intrinsically masculine or feminine about any particular phonetic characteristic. We experience sound properties as masculine or feminine because they are implicitly represented that way in the names we learn."

    The very simple Bouba-Kiki effect clearly demonstrates that there is indeed an intrinsic, cross-cultural connection between phonetics and meaning: . It is very tempting to imagine something similar might be going on with male and female names.

  2. Arika Okrent said,

    June 13, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

    Hi, author of column here. The phonetic gender score is not supposed to be a cross-cultural measure. It applies only for English (specifically, American). The question is not "what phonetic features are universal markers of maleness or femaleness" (a rather broad and unfruitful place to start, in my opinion) but "what features best distinguish male from female names in this culture?" In fact, I noticed while scoring that many of the male names that didn't fit the profile were foreign (Jose – accent on second syllable). Not mentioned in the article, and interesting, is that the male profile was sort of the prototypical English word – first syllable stress, consonant ending.

    Yes, the conclusion is in fact is that something circumstantial happened. A certain type of name went out of style that happened to have cues strongly associated with male names. So the scale shifted. But kept on being a scale. Though the scoring system may have been developed in a slightly ad hoc way, there's no denying it does a VERY good job distinguishing male and female names (not for any one particular name, of course, but in groups).

    No, names did not become more feminine in some absolute universal sense of the word. Male names acquired features that were salient cues for likelihood of femaleness of name, or lost salient cues for likelihood of maleness of name (so they became less salient, so the scale shifted…)

  3. D.O. said,

    June 14, 2014 @ 10:34 am

    I am skeptical about thesis that parents are trying to maintain male/female sounding distinction when giving their baby a relatively obscure name (that is a name for which other people wouldn't already know whether it is typically male or female). But irrespective of that, what a wonderful series of columns! I am hooked.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 14, 2014 @ 11:14 am

    One problem with all of these analyses of name trends/patterns is that the datasets generally consist of "official" names, not actually-used names. Example: Jimmy Carter is presumably in the dataset for his year-of-birth cohort as a "James," but over the course of his life generally refused to use that name even in extremely formal contexts (like how he appeared on the ballot as a candidate for President). And "Jimmy" scores as more feminine than "James." (From the other side, "Liz" is more masculine than "Elizabeth.") The extent to which these effects distort the data and perhaps do not do so to the same extent in different time periods seems to me difficult to assess.

  5. Darkwhite said,

    June 14, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

    Imagine I invented a visual gender score in the crudest possible way: an individual scores own_length_of_hair minus population_average_length_of_hair.

    We could conclude that this system does a VERY good job of distinguishing male from female appearances – it does classify well, probably much more accurately than the PGS.

    We could now pretend that this proves that VGS captures how men and women differ in appearance. We could, in a pretend world where the hair length of both sexes has converged, claim that the difference in appearance between men and women has disappeared, because look at our VGS numbers, we have graphs.

    The problem with VGS is that it leaves out mostly everything that distinguishes men and women, and we would have fooled ourselves to think VGS can be used as a proxy for feminine and masculine appearances, even though it performs okay-ish at a very simple classification task.

    Which brings us back to PGS; the numbers and graphs are interesting and worth discussing, and indeed, names have on average become PGS-positive, but we should be very vary of assuming equivalence between PGS-positive and feminine.

  6. Sybil said,

    June 16, 2014 @ 12:33 am

    I'm so sad that "lenticular" wasn't included in the "Fancy words for specific shapes". I've often had occasion to use that word with my students. [It is the shape of the intersection of two sets, each of which is represented as the interiors of a circle, in a conventional Venn diagram.] But when I explain that it means "shaped like a lentil", I'm not sure that helps more than a few of them… and when I try to add that "lens" is related…

    I gain a lot of sympathy with follk in the English Departments, let's just say.

  7. Rubrick said,

    June 17, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    @Darkwhite: You seem to be warning against an interpretation which Arika neither makes nor suggests in her post.

    (Incidentally, and deliciously, I nearly said "his post", because I'd misread the name as "Akira", which is a traditionally male Japanese name.)

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