Why do we have male and female first names?

I find it somewhat odd that last names are unisex, but first names are not. Your first name is either male or female, and if you break that tradition, you get quite a bit of abuse for it. I can only think of a handful of exceptions to this rule (eg Ashley), and every culture that I’ve experienced so far has this system in place.

Are there any anthropologists out there who could tell me whether or not this is completely universal, or if it’s just a modern/western thing? What about ancient cultures?

Are there any generally accepted reasons for this? I assume humans put a *huge *amount of importance on a person’s gender for such a system to come into existence in the first place. I mean… what else do you know about a person from their name alone, other than their sex/gender? I can tell you about my friend John or Sally, but before I’ve said a word, you already know if they are a male or a female. This would suggest that humans find it very important to categorize, group, classify, pre-judge, and/or frame people based on sex/gender before anything other information is presented.

Ultimately, I just want to know if this is cultural, or if this is biological/genetic/innate behaviour? And if so, why?

WAG: Maybe because women were considered “inferior” to men in many cultures throughout human history. It would make sense then, that one of the first things you’d know about someone would be whether they were of the “superior” sex and therefore possibly involved in business, politics, property ownership, etc.

I’m pretty sure female inferiority was just recently invented. Back in hunter-gatherer times, they probably had a much higher value than they did even just 50 years ago.

The other thing I’ve considered: is that people want to know about others with whom they may have mating potential with.

Many languages distinguish between male nouns and female nouns. So a particular word can be a name, but change its ending according to whether a person is male or female. Although English has lost it’s case endings, they still live on in certain names. Thus we have George & Georgina, Henry & Henrietta, and so on.

Some male first names are taken from the surnames of famous men, and would likely only be given to boys. You might name your son after Clive of India, or Gordon of Khartoum, but that’s not something you’d call your daughter.

Last names are not unisex in every culture.

in languages with grammatical gender (amongst them Romance languages, Slavic languages, Semitic languages - lotsa speakers all around) all words need to have gender. Even the first names :-). And it would be strange to call a woman by a “male gender” name.

In languages without gender, like Chinese, you can have unisex names. Some are mentioned here http://wiki-denmark.com/a-chinese-girls-name-is-often-a-unisex-name/

I think it is also useful to realize that names originally had meanings, even if that is not our experience today in English. E.g. “Robert” is not a random string of characters but rather a Germanic compound word containing syllables for “fame” and “bright”. Lots of names originating from Hebrew and Greek which became common among Christian nations also had recognizable meanings in their original languages which to us now are not obvious. Arabic names have meanings that are obvious to the native speakers to this day.

Based on the above, I think it should be clear that you wouldn’t want to give your daughter the same meaningful moniker that you gave your son. The “fame”, “bright”, “power” type of adjectives that are common in Germanic and Slavic male names would not make much sense as a description of a female, even a “mote it be so” type of wishful description.

Nitpick: Masculine or feminine, and those categories often only have a passing resemblance to male and female. And some languages have grammatical genders which have no relation to sex at all, dividing nouns instead based on whether they’re active or passive (humans and animals vs. things like rocks and logs), or high or low (like trees vs. grass), or other criteria.

And the OP might also be interested to know that some languages also have male and female forms of surnames. Like, Andrei Ivanov might have a daughter named Susan Ivanova.

I never knew about gendered surnames. Interesting.

Iceland has gendered last names which are not surnames. The sons of a man called Thór will have a last name Thórsson, and the daughters of a man called Thór will have a last name Thórsdóttir.

Reproductive relationships are one of the most critical elements of human societies. Since these relationships are very closely linked to gender, it is natural that in general gender is probably the single most important thing to know about a person. Besides names, in most cultures gender is also signaled by different hair styles, clothing styles, types of adornment, and so on.

Besides this, most traditional cultures also have prescribed ways in which you can interact with those of the same vs opposite gender and what kinds of activities are permitted to each gender. So in practice, knowing a person’s gender does tell you more about them than almost anything else.

Another example would be Icelandic last names.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_name#Typical_Icelandic_naming

As others have posted, there are cultures with gendered family names (Russian) and cultures with unisex given names (Chinese). The latter is actually more common than you’d think. Punjabis have unisex given names too. And I believe there are other cultures in Asia and Africa with unisex given names.

As for America, almost any masculine name can be used by a woman, but not vice versa. There are tons of names that started off as masculine names but now seem strange to varying degrees when used by a man – Aubrey, Adrian, Ginger, Stacy, Tracy, Christy, Lynn, Alexis, Vivian, Clare, Marion, Leslie, Connie, Robin, Rene, Julie, Evelyn, Gayle, Randy, Carey, Francis, Patsy, Shirley, Shelly, Nicky, Marty, Dana, Carol, Chandra, Nellie, Sandy, …

While they’re homophones, there are traditional male and female spellings of those names (though those “versions” certainly aren’t absolute, and many people may not know of, or follow, those naming distinctions):

Marion (male) / Marian (female)
Rene (male) / Renee (female)
Francis (male) / Frances (female)

I’m perfectly aware of these traditional differences in spelling (and I think you mean Frances for the last one), but I deliberately left them out because they’re essentially irrelevant these days. (They also existed to some extent for many of the other names as well – Lynne, Lesley, Carole, Adrianne, Vivianne, etc.) In modern American society, anyway, these spelling differences really don’t make much of a difference. When you hear the name “Carol” or “Lynn,” the automatic assumption is that it’s a woman, not “Hmm, I wonder if that’s spelled the masculine way or the feminine way?”

Yeah; fixed the spelling on review, and you were posting while I was doing so. :slight_smile:

Agreed on that point, for most of the ones you listed. Though, a few (Randy, Nicky, Marty) are, IME, usually nicknames for male names (Randolph, Nicholas, and Martin, respectively), and I don’t think have become particularly seen as “feminine” (though the full names, themselves, aren’t terribly common anymore).

I will also point out that most people really do not like being mistaken for a member of the other sex. They want to be easily identifiable as male or female.

Why do people on message boards use gender neutral “names”?

That’s why I said “to varying degrees.” Although, specifically, in the cases you point out, I no longer find it convenient to assume that Randy, Nicky, and Marty are diminutives for Randall, Nicholas, and Martin. In the circumstances I encounter, they’re just as likely to be feminine names, either standing alone, or as diminutives for names like Miranda, Nicole, and Martina.

Presumably because we can’t actually see or touch each other, and because we are generally trying not to reveal our actual identity. And possibly because it started out as overwhelming male, so the assumption was on the net = male. It’s a special case.

I’d assume any of those, or Francis, to be male in the absence of other information. An -i (or -es) ending to indicate the feminine.