Sociolinguistics

Language & Gender

 

Anthony and Cleopatra: A Gendered Frequency Effect and the Naming Conspiracy

In pairs of names, male names often precede female names (e.g., Anthony and Cleopatra). Wright & Hay (2002) and Bent, Wright, & Hay (2002) investigated this bias and found that name-ordering preferences are constrained by a combination of phonology and gender. A phonological bias, together with an independent gender bias, leads to an overwhelming tendency to place male names first. This paper investigates an additional factor in this naming conspiracy—frequency.

We coded the names used in the previous studies according to frequency of occurrence in U.S. Social Security Card Applications and found that frequency was highly significant in predicting name-ordering preferences: frequent names tend to be ordered first. Thus, while there may be multiple factors for Anthony to be ordered before Cleopatra, one contributing factor is the high frequency of Anthony relative to the infrequent Cleopatra. Additionally, we argue that gender and frequency are not independent: male names tend to be more frequent. Evidence comes from an analysis of corpus data demonstrating that over time, male names are more stable, while female names often change. This finding, together with the first-position preference for familiar names, strongly reinforces the overall tendency for male names to be ordered first.