9.07.2009

A Boy Named Anne, A Girl Named Laurence

On the sitcom "Friends," a joke was made about Louisa May Alcott's 19th-century novel Little Women in which there is romantic tension between the characters Jo and Laurie, as the genders of the characters may not be readily apparent to many modern US readers. Indeed, Jo (which sounds like the frequently male name "Joe") is a female, while Laurie is a male. In Alcott's time, and at least into the 20th century in some parts of the English-speaking world, Laurie was a not uncommon nickname for "Laurence," although in the modern US, "Laurie" (akin to "Laura") is used almost exclusively as a female name. To further complicate things, while English speakers will likely identify "Laurence" as a male name, in French, "Laurence" is often used as a girl's name, the feminine form of the male name "Laurent."

English speakers are often used to the gender ambiguity of unisex names such as "Pat," "Alex," "Chris," "Robin" (although in some English-speaking countries the female version is commonly spelled "Robyn"), and "Jamie," as well as names like "Kelly" and even "Marion" (macho US movie star John Wayne's real name was Marion Mitchell Morrison). And over time, some predominantly male names, such as "Taylor," "Adrian," and "Shawn," are used with increasing frequency for baby girls, although, curiously, the reverse happens only rarely.

Because of the infrequency, for whatever reason, of women's names being used for men, it may be confusing or startling to see the use of men's names for women even in a cross-cultural context. "Dominique," used occasionally in English as a female name, may be a man's name or a woman's name in French. The name "Jean," a woman's name in English, is used, although pronounced differently, as a man's name in French (the French form of John). Similarly, "Joan," also used as a woman's name in English, is used, although again pronounced differently, as a man's name in Catalan (the Catalan form of John). "Nicola" and "Andrea," identified primarily as women's names in English, are often used as male names in Italian. Furthermore, "Anne," used as a female name in English, is a man's name in Frisian (a language, closely related to English, spoken in the Netherlands), primarily a woman's name in English, is often used as a male name. And "Marie" or "Maria" have sometimes been given to baby boys as a middle name in parts of Europe, generally traditionally Catholic regions.

This all brings to mind the classic Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue. Is it really so far-fetched?

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

My name is Laurie and i am a boy. it is stupid and annoying that people view it as only a girl's name. my step mother's name is Jean and she always says "your name is a girls name you should get it changed" it is so annoying. Well now I can tell her that thanks you your words. Now I know "Jean" is "John" in France, a boy name. haha. Thanks.

Silas said...

Hey Laurie! Thanks for the comment. I'm glad I could help! Yep, "Jean" is commonly used as a male's name in France and in French-speaking countries. One of Canada's recent Prime Ministers, in fact, was Jean Chr├ętien, and he is most definitely a male. You're in good company, as there are other male Lauries out there. What's also interesting is that my name, "Silas," is almost always used as a male name, but because it's kind of old-fashioned and unknown to many, some people online assume that it is a woman's name. So I understand your frustration at having to educate certain people. Take care, and keep reading Metrolingua!