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Broad Shoulders and Broad Name

July 3, 2013

Some of my readers will remember the comic strip character, Alley Oop, created in 1932 by American cartoonist, Vincent T. Hamlin. Oop was a caveman in a Flintstones-like suburbia of prehistoric times. Oop's romantic interest, Ooola, was drawn to resemble Hamlin's wife, Dorothy.

Cartoon cavemen coexisted with dinosaurs, and Oop rode one of these like a horse. He carried a stone hammer, and he was dressed in a fur loin cloth. Before Dick Tracy got involved with the Moon Maid, Alley Oop was transported by a time machine to the present time to generate more interesting plotlines.

Tyrannosaurus fossilA 2010 poll showed that 30% of Texans believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted.[1]

(Skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus, modified 1915 image, via Wikimedia Commons.)

The name, Alley Oop, was apparently an intended corruption of the French, "allez, hop," meaning "let's jump on our feet and go," as used by tumblers and gymnasts. It was likely chosen since it has an air of masculinity. Why would a name sound masculine, or feminine; and, is it just my false perception that male names have become somewhat more feminine sounding since the time of Alley Opp, werewolf and vampire role models notwithstanding? (See Table I)

Table I. Baby names in the United States at the time that the cartoon, Alley Oop, was created, 1932, and the latest year for which data are available, 2012. (US Social Security Administration data).[2]

Rank1932 Male1932 Female 2012 Male2012 Female
1RobertMary JacobSophia
2JamesBetty MasonEmma
3JohnBarbara EthanIsabella
4WilliamDorothy NoahOlivia
5RichardJoan WilliamAva
6CharlesPatricia LiamEmily
7DonaldMargaret JaydenAbigail
8GeorgeHelen MichaelMia
9JosephShirley AlexanderMadison
10ThomasDoris AidenElizabeth

A team of psychologists from Queen Mary University of London (London, UK) wondered about the same thing; namely, what makes a name sound masculine. They've published their analysis as a free, open access paper on PLOS ONE.[3-5] Their conclusion is that "larger" sounding names, such as "Oop," are evocative of the deeper vocalizations of larger individuals, so they are preferred by parents for their boys. Names with higher frequency sounds are preferred for girls.

They cite the following names as examples of this concept (note the "oop" in "Cooper").

BoysJackLachlanCooperNoahTom
GirlsIsabellaOliviaMiaLilyElla

Newborn babyThere's a quotation, variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Michael Faraday, "What use is a newborn baby?" This was supposedly said in reply to some pompous bureaucrat's asking why some scientific discovery was important.[6]

(Photo by Catalin Bogdan, via Wikimedia Commons.)

There's a correlation in Western societies between stature and reproductive success. Taller men and shorter, slimmer women are considered more attractive.[3] Says study co-author, Benjamin Pitcher, of Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences
"In general, western societies tend to think of relatively taller men as more masculine and more successful with the opposite sex whereas shorter, slimmer women are perceived as having attractive feminine qualities. It seems that over time the English language has developed a preference for names that reflect our society's attitudes of what we deem to be attractive qualities in the different sexes."[4]
To study this effect, the research team divided speech phonemes into size categories depending on their frequency content; for example, /a/ and /o/ are "large" sounds, whereas /i/ and /e/ are "small" sounds.[3] Large vowels are produced by pulling the tongue back in the mouth, which produces a larger resonant space and lower frequencies. Small vowels are produced with the tongue thrust forward, creating higher frequencies.

Male and female spectrograms for the word, 'mil'
Spectrograms of the word, "mil," spoken by a 175 cm tall male (left) and a 165 cm tall female (right). Male speech formant frequencies (F1, F2 and F3) are lower, and there's more sound energy at lower frequencies. (A portion of fig. 1 of ref. 3, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)[3]

The dataset for this study was the most popular names from England, Australia and the United States in the last decade, about fifteen million names.[4] They used established linguistic techniques to determine which of these contained small and large vowels sounds.[4] Parents were found to be 1-1/2 times more likely to assign a large vowel name to a son than a daughter.[3,5]

Although I think it's a reach, the authors say that this is an example of biological evolution influencing human culture.[4] As summarized by study co-author Alan McElligott, also from Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences,
An evolutionary perspective might be that parents are choosing names that help to boost their son or daughter's success in life by increasing the chance of passing on their genes. In the future, we are interested in determining whether this gender bias in vowel sounds of first names is also seen in languages other than English."[4]
In short, if your son doesn't have a soccer star physique, perhaps a soccer star name will help.

References:

  1. Ross Ramsey, "Poll: 30% of Texans believe humans and dinosaurs lived together," Houston Chronicle, February 18, 2010.
  2. Top 10 Baby Names, US Social Security Administration Web Site.
  3. Benjamin J. Pitcher, Alex Mesoudi and Alan G. McElligott, "Sex-Biased Sound Symbolism in English-Language First Names," PLos One, vol. 8, no. 6 (June 5, 2013), Document No. e64825, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064825.
  4. What's in a name?, Queen Mary University of London Press Release, June 5, 2013.
  5. Nicky Phillips, "Size matters in the naming game," The Age, June 10, 2013 .
  6. Donald Simanek, "Scientific Urban Legends," Lock Haven University Web Site.

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