Why Do So Many Girls's Names End in 'A'?

This week, the Social Security Administration released 2014’s ten most popular baby names in the U.S. The big news is that Noah retained its lead over Mark and Jacob, which until last year had traded the most-popular boys’s name spot since 1960. My colleague Megan notes that it takes a healthy sense of game theory to name a baby, as uniqueness-hunting parents must spot trends in order to evade them. “Emma” was barely on the map a generation ago, but now it’s number one:

Emma didn’t enter the top 100 names in the United States until 1993. It rose to the top 10 in less than ten years—2002. And in 2008, it became the most popular name for all girls. Emma went from “distinctive” to “common” to “incredibly common,” all in the relatively short span of two decades. It remains a beautiful name; it does not remain, however, an unusual one.

What struck me, though, was the preponderance of girls’s names ending in -a.

The top six girls’s names in 2014—Emma, Olivia, Sophia, Isabella, Ava, and Mia—all end in “a,” and, what’s more, they end in the same unstressed vowel sound that linguists call schwa. Yet as Shakespeare’s Jessica, Ophelia, and Desdemona (not to mention Cleopatra) demonstrate, this is the opposite of a recent trend: Parents have bestowed the terminal “a” on baby girls for a long time. When, I wondered, did it all start?

I emailed David Sidhu, a psychology graduate student at the University of Calgary who recently published a paper on sound symbolism and gender in names. Citing a paper from 2000 by the University of Glasgow professor Caroline Hough, he replied that “it turns out that there quite a bit of research showing that female names are overall more likely to end in a schwa”:

One reason for this is that -a was the ending for the female form of Latin names, and so this has passed down to some derivatives of those names. Interestingly, female names are more likely to be of a French or Latin origin than male names. Additionally, there is a tendency for female names to be formed out of male names, and one way this happens is by adding a suffix including a schwa (e.g., Alexandra, Georgina).

Latin—especially in its older forms—is at least 2700 years old. Its grammatical gender constructions may be even older. When American parents consider baby-naming trends this year, they may be thinking of very long-lasting ones.